Being 12th halfway through the Premier League season would normally mean safety for Southampton. Yet with 18 games played the Saints are much nearer the bottom three than the top six.
Mauricio Pellegrino’s side sit just three points above Newcastle United in 18th yet are a mammoth 14 points behind high-flying Burnley in sixth. The South Coast outfit are on a bad run of form, too, winning just one of their last nine in all competition.
After their 4-1 demolition of Everton towards the end of November, it’s all gone wrong for Pellegrino’s men. They’ve not won in five games, a run that included a 4-1 thrashing by old boss Claude Puel’s new side Leicester City.
Most neutrals were baffled by the decision to sack Puel at the end of last season despite finishing eighth and reaching the EFL Cup final. Southampton’s struggles under Pellegrino, coupled with Leicester’s Puel-inspired revival, will only serve to raise further questions over the decision to replace Puel with the former Alavés man.
How do Southampton compare to last season?
After 18 games last season, Saints were sitting in eighth, having won six, drawn six and lost six games, with a goal difference of minus two. So far this season, they’ve converted two of those wins into losses, meaning they have 18 points – six fewer than last term. Their goal difference is also worse at minus seven.
At this stage of the season, Saints under Puel had scored 18, compared to 17 under Pellegrino. They’d also conceded just 20, rather than 24.
Their shot accuracy under Puel was higher too – 46 per cent hitting the target compared to just 32 per cent so far this season.
The passing accuracy under the Frenchman after 18 games was also slightly better as well – 82 per cent rather than 81 per cent.
It is notable that over the entire of the 2016/17 season, Southampton’s shot accuracy was 42 per cent and their pass completion rate was 81 per cent, suggesting a drop off in the second half of the season.
Under Pellegrino, Saints are also averaging fewer shots per game (12.4 to 14.5), despite having the same amount of possession (53 per cent).
The point of sacking a manager is that you believe the new man will do better with the resources available to him. But that is not proving to be the case with Pellegrino.
Was sacking Puel and bringing in Pellegrino the right decision?
However, just because Pellegrino has disappointed doesn’t mean letting Puel go wasn’t the correct choice.
The eighth-place finish was still a drop-off after Ronald Koeman had lifted the Saints to sixth before moving to Everton.
Under Puel, Saints suffered early exits from the FA Cup and Europa League and, during a 1-0 home defeat to Stoke City, fans appeared to have turned against the Frenchman, chanting “You don’t know what you’re doing” and booing him.
While they may have finished eighth, they were closer in points to the relegation zone than they were to Everton, who finished in seventh.
By getting just three fewer points, they would have finished in 13th.
He was the wrong appointment after Koeman and arguably his success came from riding the coat tails of the previous regimes, with both the Dutchman and Mauricio Pochettino thriving at St Mary’s.
Just one win in their final eight matches – against a struggling Middlesbrough – wasn’t good enough. Nor was failing to score in seven of their last nine matches – that simply wasn’t sustainable for a manager under pressure.
Puel may look a lot better at Leicester, and it is early days there, but sometimes a certain manager just fits a certain club better than others. For that reason, his success at the King Power Stadium shouldn’t hide the fact that it was time for him to leave Saints.
The more pressing is issue is Pellegrino doesn’t appear to be the right man to take the Hampshire side forward. There is a real fear among Saints fans that they are in a relegation battle.
With Charlie Austin the only striking option showing any form – with five top-flight goals this season – there’s a worry they Saints are simply not creating enough chances.
What’s more, Pellegrino didn’t even fancy the Englishman, finally giving him a chance in a desperate attempt to end his side’s goalscoring woes. Austin has still only started four times in the Premier League this season.
Saints might muddle along until the end of the season with Pellegrino, surviving on the basis there are three worse teams than them at the foot of the table. But if they get sucked into the bottom three, there is little to suggest they would be able to haul themselves out.
As 2018 approaches, all Saints fans will want from the New Year is someone in charge who can re-live the relative glory days of Pochettino and Koeman.
That person wasn’t Puel, and at the moment it doesn’t look like Pellegrino.