Southampton’s 3-0 defeat to Newcastle United last weekend may be the game that saves their season and with it, their long-term vision.
The manner of the loss, against a fellow relegation-threatened side, was the final straw for Director of Football Les Reed and the rest of the board, as Mauricio Pellegrino was sacked on Monday after winning just five league games in his ten months in charge of the club.
Saints appeared reluctant to dismiss a second manager in the space of a year, following the departure of Claude Puel last summer, but the prospect of relegation to the Championship had become all too real after arguably their worst display of the season in one of their most important fixtures.
When Pellegrino was appointed, Reed had declared: “Mauricio believes with the quality we have we can play exciting, attacking football, taking the game to our opponents by playing a high-intensity game.”
That never transpired under the Argentine. Fans had long believed their club was being dragged into a relegation battle through a run of turgid displays, lack of goals and creativity and a manager who chopped and changed his starting line-up despite players being in form.
When the starting XI was announced on Saturday at St James’ Park, the in-form Josh Sims had been dropped, while Guido Carrillo – a signing made to appease Pellegrino in January – kept his place ahead of Manolo Gabbiadini, despite not finding the net in his first eight games. This selection, as many have this term, baffled fans. The performance left them furious.
Their anger cooled slightly when Pellegrino was relieved of his duties, but for many the decision came much too late. With only eight games remaining, five of those away from home, and Chelsea and Manchester City still to come at St Mary’s, Saints find themselves in a perilous position as they look to stave off the very real threat of relegation.
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) March 15, 2018
Mark Hughes is the man who has been handed the responsibility of ensuring Southampton retain their Premier League status. But this is no more than a short-term fix in the club’s long-term project that could well have been over before it had even started had Pellegrino stayed in charge of the club.
After four consecutive top-eight finishes in the Premier League, Saints were building a solid foundation and confident of challenging England’s big six on a regular basis within the next few seasons. Their outlook has changed dramatically after two seasons of regression under first Puel, and then Pellegrino.
An eighth-placed finish under Puel last season masked the fact they had ended just six points above the relegation places. The Frenchman struggled to provide the excitement and entertainment that had previously been enjoyed under Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman. Pellegrino found it even harder.
The former Valencia and Liverpool defender was supposed to return the south coast side to their previous ways, but with just 29 goals in 30 games, it’s all too apparent that finding the back of the net remains a problem. That will be the first thing Hughes must address.
The Welshman’s appointment, on a deal until the end of the season, highlights the desperation that has crept into those in power of the red and whites.
The short-term view is clear: Hughes’ Premier League experience gives them more of a chance of retaining their Premier League status. They will hope his arrival can spark the players back into life and ensure they do enough in the final eight games of the season to survive.
But are Southampton sure about their former player leading them to their long-term goals? Clearly not.
Hughes himself will see it as a win-win. In his first interview following his appointment, the 54-year-old admitted he wasn’t expecting to be back in a job so quickly after his demise at Stoke, but the opportunity was too good to turn down. That’s hardly surprising.
If Southampton do go down, he can say he was given too little time to save them, while if they stay up, he will more than likely be offered a longer deal at St Mary’s and handed the funds in the summer to make the changes required to ensure another season like this one doesn’t happen again.
There’s also the prospect of a trip to Wembley. Hughes’ first game in charge will come against Wigan Athletic in the quarter-finals of the Emirates FA Cup. Victory on Saturday would set up a semi-final clash at the national stadium, and leave Saints and their new manager just 180 minutes from a first major cup glory since 1976.
Premier League survival is of course the club’s main priority. The rumoured £1 million bonus that Hughes will receive if he keeps Southampton in the top-flight highlights that fact, but it will be small change if it means their long-term aspirations remain in tact.
The Welshman has been brought in to try to save Saints from the drop after Mauricio Pellegrino was sacked on Monday with the club 17th in the Premier League.
He has agreed a contract with the club until the end of the season and will take training at their Staplewood Campus for the first time on Thursday as they prepare for an FA Cup quarter-final at League One Wigan.
A club statement said: “The club is confident that this appointment will allow the complete focus of the manager, players and staff to be on the remaining games of this season.”
Hughes, who made 60 appearances for the club, is confident he can make an immediate impact.
“It’s a challenge I’m excited by. It’s a great opportunity to come back to a club I know well, and a club I’ve got real affinity with, and I couldn’t turn that down,” he said.
“I bring experience of the Premier League. I understand what it takes in this league to win games.
“It’s a club I have an affinity with and I couldn’t turn the opportunity down.”
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) March 14, 2018
“But first and foremost I think it’s about coming in and maybe being that different voice, that different message from myself and the staff, that will enable the players to recognise and focus on what needs to be done in this key period of the season.
“The objective clearly is to remain in the league and make sure we’re a Premier League club next year.
“That’s where this club needs to be, that’s where it should be, and that’s our intention to make sure it remains there.”
Hughes will be joined at St Mary’s by trusted lieutenants Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki in the roles of assistant manager and assistant first team coach respectively alongside existing first team assistant coach Kelvin Davis, head of goalkeeping Dave Watson and head of sports science Alek Gross.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola met HH Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the Presidential Affairs Office in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
Following their 2-0 win over Stoke City in the Premier League on Monday, the City squad flew to the United Arab Emirates where they are currently enjoying a warm-weather break.
Whilst training in the capital, Guardiola was able to spend time with the club’s owner while City’s chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak was also in attendance.
City have enjoyed a superb second league campaign under the Spaniard and need just two more victories to secure the Premier League title.