Why Ronald Koeman can’t get complacent at Southampton
Paul McNamara examines Southampton's comings and goings ahead of the new Premier League season
It is a measure of the remarkable style in which Southampton shrugged off last summer’s player exodus to be one of the Premier League season’s feel-good stories, that a similar talent drain this year has barely raised a flicker of concern on the south coast.
Indeed, the confidence emanating from St Mary’s ahead of the forthcoming campaign is shared elsewhere, with the Saints widely tipped for another nine months spent exclusively in the top half of the table.
By extension, Ronald Koeman is responsible for setting the bar extremely high, after a fine first year in what is the Dutchman’s eighth managerial assignment.
The manager’s contribution notwithstanding, much of the credit for the way that Southampton made light of the sales of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers in 2014, to go on and secure a seventh-place finish, while playing an eye-catching, innovative brand of football, has to go to the meticulous scouting and recruitment operation employed by the club.
The same coherent succession-planning that is applied to their playing staff, was utilised to identify Koeman as the man to replace Mauricio Pochettino in the manager’s chair, even before the Argentine left the Saints for Tottenham at the end of the 2013/14 campaign.
The appointment of the former Barcelona centre-half has, thus far, worked a dream. So impressive was the fashion in which Koeman speedily integrated his influx of new recruits last term that the 52-year-old was being touted as an early contender for manager-of-the-year honours.
While the likes of Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle captured the headlines for their shared creative and goal-scoring feats, other astute Koeman acquisitions such as Ryan Bertrand and Toby Alderweireld were no less valuable to the cause, as Saints secured European football for the first time since 2003.
Still, a terrific campaign in Hampshire couldn’t tempt Alderweireld to turn his loan move into a permanent stay, the Belgian defender instead opting to leave Atletico Madrid for Spurs this summer. If losing Alderweireld would have dismayed Koeman as he shaped his side for the campaign ahead, then the departure of Morgan Schneiderlin to Manchester United is a monumental blow; striking right at the heart of everything that the ex-Ajax boss strove to build in his first term at the St Mary’s helm.
Given the near inevitability of Schneiderlin’s sale this summer (it required a decidedly firm stance to keep the Frenchman from joining the 2014 bolt for the exit), Southampton will have been typically pro-active in ensuring that a suitable replacement was lined-up.
But, as a multitude of managers and chairmen have discovered over the years, player recruitment is not an exact science.
Going back to his previous club, Feyenoord, for Jordy Clasie, indicates that Koeman has had a substantial input into the identity of Schneiderlin’s successor in the middle of the Saints’ midfield. Likewise, the two players brought in from Holland’s Eredivise last season (Pelle and Dusan Tadic) suggests that the manager is in-the-loop when it comes to the club’s transfer targets.
The joined-up thinking in the Southampton hierarchy, however, does not act as a guarantee that every new signing is going to be a roaring success, in the manner of Mane, Pelle, and goalkeeper Fraser Forster. Eljero Elia and Filip Duricic, for example, who both spent the second-half of last season at St Mary’s, failed to make any telling impact during their respective temporary stays.
The relatively inauspicious fortunes of those two Koeman recruits could be easily dismissed, though, with the team performing strongly, and so many other new boys flourishing.
Still, what if Clasie doesn’t hit the ground running in English football? A footballer with a reputation as a fine technician, but an individual who is light of stature, could conceivably take his time to adapt. Bought for a substantial £8.5m the 11-cap Netherlands international’s worth will rapidly come under scrutiny if Koeman’s side can’t repeat last term’s flying start.
It is another of the Saints manager’s recent additions, however, who will need to make a solid beginning to life with his new club if he is to win over the sceptics. Steven Caulker has been in the middle of the back-four for the team which has finished rock-bottom of the Premier League in each of the last two seasons. What’s more, the Cardiff City and QPR sides that the 23-year-old suffered the drop with shipped a combined 147 goals in those two years.
It is some show of faith in Caulker’s ability, then, for Koeman to single him out as the man to fill Alderweireld’s reliable boots. Capped once by England, Caulker does at least have vast experience of the league he will be playing in this term. The same is not true of defenders Cedric Soares and Cuco Martina, or the Spanish forward Juanmi, the trio who, along with former Roma goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg comprise the remainder of the latest batch of Saints’ recruits.
Early portents are good. Koeman endured a degree of personal pain on his team’s trip to Holland this week, the manager sustaining a ruptured Achilles tendon in training prior to the Europa League tie with Vitesse Arnhem. He will have been thrilled, nevertheless, with the emphatic style in which his side progressed, scoring five unanswered goals across two matches with the Dutch outfit.
Koeman will not be judged this term on his side’s form on the continent, though – unless he oversees a run deep into the competition. Being shorn of Schneiderlin, Alderwerield and the excellent right-back Nathaniel Clyne, sold to Liverpool for £12.5m, won’t save Southampton’s boss from censure if he can’t rediscover the formula of the successful 2014/2015, in which those three players were so prominent.
There has actually been a suspicion, probably unfairly, that the club has been a touch complacent about waving goodbye to another clutch of star players, such was the apparent comfort with which they dealt with similar events 12 months ago. The reality is, keeping hold of any of those men would have been nigh on impossible.
The imperturbable Koeman, who lashed in the free-kick at Wembley against Sampdoria that won Barca their first ever European Cup in 1992, and who once likened playing for the Catalan giants to sitting an exam every single week, won’t be cowed by the task in front of him.
In fact, there won’t be many managers more keenly aware of the capricious nature of their trade. A three-time Dutch league winner – twice in charge of Ajax and then as boss of PSV Eindhoven – Koeman has also experienced the tougher side of the job, having seen brief, inglorious spells as manager of both Benfica and Valencia ended abruptly.
The ex-Dutch national team skipper bounced back from those lows to the point where, as Southampton thrived under his stewardship last year, Koeman was viewed as a candidate to succeed an under-pressure Luis Enrique at Barcelona. With the Spaniard eventually landing a treble at the Nou Camp last term, however, there shouldn’t be a vacancy in the Barca hotseat any time soon.
Matters at the Champions League holders won’t be of any immediate concern to their former defender, though. Defying all reason or logic to make Southampton the Premier League’s seventh best team last season was a tremendous achievement. Now, if he is to pass this latest stern test of his credentials, Ronald Koeman cannot afford to take his eye off the ball.