One of the worst kept secrets of the last Premier League season was Claude Puel’s fate after the season ended. It was pretty clear to the Southampton fans and probably the players as well, that Puel’s days at St. Mary’s were numbered. As expected, Puel was sacked a couple of weeks back and the hunt for a new manager was begun by the Southampton board.
According to some sources, the Southampton fans were looking forward to welcoming the recently sacked Thomas Tuchel from Bundesliga. However, when the announcement of a new coach was made last week, it was revealed that the new manager at St. Mary’s will not be the German but an Argentine, who has previous experience of the Premier League.
Southampton announced Mauricio Pellegrino, the former Valencia, Barcelona and Liverpool player as their new manager last week. Pellegrino was employed at Alaves prior to signing for Southampton. The board at St. Mary’s might have thought that who should replace the manager who lost one of the English cup finals and come up with an answer – a manager who lost the Spanish cup final. But going by only that logic Tuchel would have been a better bet as Dortmund won the DFB Pokal under his leadership.
So clearly, success or failure in cup competition might not have been the criterion used by Southampton board. In this post, I will try to look at a few aspects of this change at St. Mary’s. Namely – why did Puel have to go? Who is Pellegrino and what sort of experience does he bring? And finally, what sort of a coach is he and can he enliven St. Mary’s once more?
Why Sack Puel
When we look at Puel’s record at Southampton, we might be tempted to say that he did pretty well in the lone season he spent there. Eighth placed finish when the top six were so closely contested, a League Cup run that ended in the final at the hands of Manchester united and a Europa League group stage campaign that included wins over Inter and Sparta Praha, albeit in failure to progress to knock-out stages.
However, when we look at the Premier League table or any of Southampton’s matches, especially towards the end of the season, Puel’s sacking seems less harsh – even justified to some extent. Southampton finished eighth but they were 17 points off 7th-placed Everton, while they were just six off the 17th placed Watford. In their last eight league matches, Southampton won only one match, losing four and drawing three.
The atmosphere in St. Mary’s had turned so dull that it was scarcely believable that just in the past few seasons, the Saints had played extremely attractive football under Pochettino and Koeman. As the ESPN FC piece states, Puel was not sacked because he lost the dressing room but because he never won it over. He was struggling to win over the fans with his dull tactics, while his bland coaching style ensured that he never commanded the respect from the dressing room. Hence, the Southampton board was more than justified when they sacked Puel.
What Pedigree Does Pellegrino Bring?
Most Premier League fans know Pellegrino as Rafa Benitez’s assistant coach at Liverpool for close to two years between 2008 and 2010. Prior to that Pellegrino had been the assistant coach at Valencia. He followed Rafa to Inter from Liverpool but after Rafa was sacked at Inter, Pellegrino took a break of one and a half years before joining Valencia as the manager. His first managerial stint ended quickly after 20 games for Valencia winning 1.55 points per game. After the sack from Valencia, he went to managing in his native country Argentina, starting with Estudiantes, with whom he stayed for two years – 2012-13 to 2014-15. Then he moved to Independiente where he spent a further year. In Argentina, his points per game ratio improved to 1.61. After Independiente, Pellegrino joined Alaves in La Liga at the start of the last season. While his points per game ratio declined to 1.51 for Alaves, his biggest accomplishment for them was to take them to the Copa Del Rey final against all odds.
Pellegrino is less experienced than Puel but he has played in, as well as managed in, more leagues, which lends him a balanced perspective and comfort with multiple tactics. This, along with his Alaves miracle, might be the reason why Southampton board brought him in.
How is Pellegrino as a Manager?
This Guardian piece by Sid Lowe describes Pellegrino as a good tactician who is comfortable with multiple tactics. He likes positional play and order from his teams. His players describe him as a keen student of the game, as well as the opponent’s strategies. In addition to being a good tactician, he also seems to be a good people manager and this would be the quality that Southampton fans would love to see the most. They will expect Pellegrino to come and lift the spirits of the dressing room and inspire the players. Going by the testimony of his past players, he seems to be able to do exactly this.
Pellegrino seems to embody an inherent contradiction, which he attributes to his Argentine roots. He hates to lose but when he wins, he is not overjoyed as he believes that victory reduces the scope of further improvement. But it certainly does not mean that he is relaxed or does not mind losing. Just ask Barcelona, Villareal or Celta Vigo.
Southampton board have made an interesting choice in Pellegrino and given him a challenge that he has not faced yet. He seems to be equipped to deal with it but as he himself said once, “…You can see a prince or a frog in every player, every coach, and everyone.”
Southampton fans would want to see a prince or a hero in their new manager.