Reporters on Saints' season so far
With the season having reached the latest international break, we sought out the views of four journalists who regularly cover Southampton on the team's start to the season.
In the first of a two-part edition of The Press Box, the reporters also give their thoughts on new manager Claude Puel and his philosophy.
The second part will see them discuss their stand-out players, the team's start to the Europa League and their expectations for the side for the rest of the season.
– Paul Belverstone (Premier League Productions)
– Adam Leitch (Southern Daily Echo)
– Adam Blackmore (BBC Radio Solent)
– Joe Prince-Wright (NBC Sports)
What have you made of the start to the season?
Paul Belverstone: “They’ve done it again, haven’t they? When so many other clubs go for a familiar or fashionable name as manager, they’ve made a brave decision – one that’s clearly well-researched and intelligent.
“My one fear early was maybe there might be a lack of goals in the squad. But these last six games in a row, it’s been tremendous, so those fears have been alleviated to some extent, and they’re getting the best out of Charlie Austin.
“I read that it’s exactly the same start as Ronald Koeman made last season, so to have a new manager yet again and to start the same way you did when you achieved your highest-ever Premier League finish is pretty good grounds for optimism.”
Adam Leitch: “The initial weeks I would describe as shaky. Not a disaster, but also not what you ideally would have wanted for a new manager. It’s always important to try to make an impact, especially at home, early on and Watford and Sunderland were winnable games that weren’t won, so that always piles the pressure on, but since then the turnaround in terms of results has been pretty dramatic.
“I think they’ve set themselves up pretty well for the next small period before the next international break.
“All eyes were on Claude taking over and I think right now people would be relatively content. I’m not saying people are absolutely over the moon, but also there’s no case of despair. I think it’s content at the moment.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “It’s been getting better as the season has gone on. A new coach, a new philosophy, a few new players and you could see it wasn’t quite clicking in the first few weeks of the season. But, especially the win against West Ham, everything seemed to click in the second half there, and the clean sheet record is really pleasing.
“They’ve got this solid base of being difficult to beat, then you have flair players like Tadić and Charlie Austin on his great scoring run, and I think with Boufal set to come back that everyone’s really a lot more optimistic.
“Now you can really see the manager’s methods working. Saints look a lot more composed and patient and midfield, and he’s changed things up quite nicely, so teams don’t know quite what to expect when they’re playing Saints.
“I would say so far this season it’s gone better than most people would have thought.”
Adam Blackmore: “I won’t lie, I was worried in the first few games, especially the home matches against Watford and Sunderland, which they should have won.
“I wasn’t so much worried about the results as the level of performances and the style, which weren’t what we’ve been used to. I think it’s taken the team a while to adapt to what the new manager wants, and it’s taken a while for him to adapt to their strengths, and I think we’re starting to get somewhere near where they’re all happy being now.”
What have you made of Claude Puel and his approach?
Paul Belverstone: “He’s effective tactically, he makes some good tactical substitutions as well, which hasn’t always been the case. He’s using the whole squad, not just to give players a rest, but using them effectively and successfully as well.
“They’ve had success in all three competitions so far. He’s clearly not afraid to give youngsters a chance, which last season perhaps had gone away a little bit, so he looks a very shrewd and measured choice again.
“I think he deserves credit for doing his press conferences in English. It looks initially like he was a little bit uncomfortable, and it is a bit clunky at times, but he comes up with some tremendous stuff. He’s the most quietly spoken man I’ve ever met in my life, so you did wonder how does that come across in the dressing room, but you look at these ten games he’s had in charge and clearly that’s not the way he delivers instructions in the dressing room, and there’s a completely different side to him.
“I’m looking forward as well to seeing what he can do when Boufal is fit. I think that will be interesting, because it looks like he might be quite key to his system.”
Adam Leitch: “The one thing I’d say about him is he appears to be very single-minded, and I quite like that. Everybody was queuing up to tell him to change the formation and he didn’t do it, though he has been prepared to adapt. He’s definitely adapted the game to try to get Charlie Austin involved, because it was quite obvious he was going to be the key goalscorer and they’d produced a formation that wasn’t really going to suit him. They’ve changed the style a bit and it obviously has brought him right back into things again, which is a positive.
“I was also impressed he backed up his words in terms of the squad rotation. Every manager says it’s not about 11 players, it’s about a squad, and then what do you see from almost all of them? They only rely on the same players.
It's the best squad southampton have surely ever had.paul belverstone
premier league productions
“Actually, Claude said ‘I trust in my squad and I believe in my squad’ and he’s proven it. He’s pretty much used every senior player at his disposal already and has started to dip into using one or two of the young players as well. I think it’s quite impressive. From his point of view, that will hopefully hold a bit of sway and weight with the players, who can see they’re going to get opportunities.
“If I was to be critical, the only thing I would say is, while I understand his logic for wanting to change the system and style – I’ve asked him about it and he’s explained it several times, and I get what he’s saying – I do still question in the long run, when you have a team so used to playing a certain formation and playing it successfully, whether there was any need to really have changed it, and whether the 4-2-3-1 might still work a little bit better with the players they’ve got. That’s a matter of opinion really, although that would probably be my opinion if I was sticking my neck out, but to be fair you can’t argue with the six results they’ve just had, so he deserves to give it a go however he wants to do it.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “I like that he’s relaxed and calm. He seems very thoughtful in what he says and I think that translates across to the players. He seems very confident in what he’s doing and his resumé speaks for itself. I think the players are getting used to what he wants, and I think it’s different to what we’ve been used to seeing the last couple of years. They still do the high pressing to a certain extent, but they’ve got that ability to sit back and perhaps soak up pressure a little bit more, then with some of the faster players on the break they can threaten on the counter.
“If you like, I think Puel’s brought a bit of a Plan B. They can still possess the ball and look to press high, but I think there’s definitely a few more strings to the bow.
“It’s early days, but I think his personality is really refreshing and I think it’s quite exciting for Saints fans to see where the team goes from here.”
Adam Blackmore: “I like working with him, because he seems to be a genuine and affable man, who is considered and thinks about what he’s saying. He’s not a hot head.
"But I also like the fact on the sidelines he is more animated and you can see how much he cares when you see him operating on the touchline and instructing players. Because he’s quietly spoken and speaking in a second language, I think that animation on the sidelines helps the fans understand more about him.”
Are you a fan of the way Puel has been rotating his squad?
Paul Belverstone: “Players always say they want to play in every game, but they do seem to be coming round to it, and I think the way he has done it makes absolute sense and you can only judge it by results and performances, and there hasn’t been a great drop-off at all.
“We said it last year and I’d say this year again the squad has improved. It’s the best squad Southampton have surely ever had, because you can compete in all three competitions. There’s no throwing away the League Cup.
“Clearly he has a lot of faith, and his players have a lot of faith in him, that he can rotate and it’s not square pegs in round holes. It won’t always work. There will be stutters along the way, but you’ve got to give him and the players credit for the way it has worked so well in the first couple of months.”
It’s a brave decision, because if the result goes badly people will hammer you for it. I think it's a credit to him and the strength of his character.Adam Leitch
Southern Daily echo
Adam Leitch: “I don’t think they really have any option but to do some rotation. Anyone who made that trip to Israel would have felt that. It was basically two days with very little sleep, and probably a grand total of virtually 24 hours travelling. That is tiring, whether you’re a professional athlete or not.
“In terms of the squad rotation, I said for Israel that I hope if he is going to rest some players that he’s actually left them at home, not that he’s brought them out and is going to sit them on the touchline. It’s a brave decision, because if the result goes badly people will hammer you for it, but to get through this run of games it was probably the only sensible policy, and he did do that. I think that was a credit to him and the strength of his character.
“I think in terms of why it’s worked at Saints, I guess it’s a mixture of things. They’ve got a tight-knit squad, which helps, and it helps that they all feel they’ve got a stake in it, they’ve got good players, and also the games they have changed for he’s picked well when to make them. I’m not taking anything away from the achievements, but of the games he changed, Sparta were poor, Be’er Sheva were well-organised, athletic and strong, but they definitely lacked a bit of quality, and Crystal Palace definitely weren’t at the races for that League Cup game. To have a small squad that are hungry almost outweighs any problem if you have a dip in quality, and that’s what Claude has managed to foster so far.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “I am a fan of it. I think he’s probably learnt lessons from his past playing in Europe, and I think some teams in the Premier League in past years haven’t when they’ve been in the Europa League.
“You’d have to argue the squad this season is incredibly strong and even. Of course, there’s some key players, but it’s not really been weakening the team. They’ve all been playing their part, and now they know that and they accept there’s going to be rotation, it’s worked really well so far. It’s different to see, but overall it’s been a really good few weeks and hats off to the manager for having the bravery to do that.”
Adam Blackmore: “I’m a massive fan of it, and I’m a massive fan of it now because they’re unbeaten in six games! I also think the fact that Claude Puel trusts his players is massive. While you can spend a lot of time worrying about trying to keep as many egos happy as possible, the fact he is strong enough, and more worried about the squad and the players than he is about what people say about him is evidenced by the fact he’s willing to rotate the squad and take the hit if things don’t go well, and so far he’s been repaid by that squad, who have been given opportunities and taken them. It’s very encouraging he’s managed to give so many player so much game time in the opening two months of the campaign.”