Skip to content

Southampton: Once the pride of the south coast - what has gone so badly wrong at Championship-bound Saints?

What has led to Southampton's worst top-flight season on record? Sky Sports takes a look at the story behind their dramatic fall from grace; Saints were relegated on Saturday - they have won just six games all season

Credit - PA/AP Photo/Getty

Southampton are a football club burdened by trouble and strife. It has been that way since their European zenith under Ronald Koeman - an extension of the fine work Mauricio Pochettino had undertaken in the two seasons before his arrival.

Saints are a far cry from the club the Dutchman inherited back in 2014. And some distance from where they themselves expected to be after establishing a brief foothold as one of the Premier League's top-half teams.

A story that got muddled before reaching its fairytale conclusion.

Indeed, Southampton's plight is a bit like a 'once upon a time', less the happy ending. A series of pinch points without the comfort of resolution.

Various players with ambitions far greater than the means at St Mary's have come and gone during Southampton's decade-long Premier League stay, yet expectations of grandeur persisted. Plans were discussed in boardrooms and along executive corridors by the club's decision makers, who became obsessed with the notion of overachievement, or rather the ability to punch above one's weight. A rookie in the big leagues.

The tagline coined in said discussions was "potential into excellence". What that meant in reality was somewhat idealistic. A strategy that served for a short while but needed refining as the Premier League landscape changed - and became ever-more financially fuelled.

Ronald Koeman was Southampton boss between 2014-16
Image: Ronald Koeman was Southampton boss between 2014-16 - winning their highest-ever PL points total (63) in his final season

Saints stumbled across some gems during the Koeman era. In consecutive transfer windows the likes of Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle and Virgil van Dijk were all charmed by the allure of the English south coast, supplemented by a world-class academy system packed with thoroughbred talent. Prospects were good.

Also See:

Between 2013 and 2017 Southampton finished no lower than eighth. In 2016, during Koeman's swansong, they ended the season on 63 points. The football was, at times, enchanting - results too. Saints adopted an expansive, progressive style, with clear energy and identity, and a reputation for producing a healthy sprinkling of shock results.

In January 2015 they recorded back-to-back victories over Arsenal and Manchester United without conceding a single goal. In October the same year they visited Stamford Bridge and dispatched Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, before putting four past the Gunners on Boxing Day. They beat United, again at Old Trafford, in January 2016, as well as emerging triumphant over Liverpool and Tottenham in the same campaign.

2015/16 season

It was a melting pot of smart operational decisions, a coherent structure and favourable external circumstances that landed Southampton in European competition the following season, with the chance to treat fans to one of the apogees of continental football - a night at the San Siro. For most supporters it was a dream come true - a fantasy playing out in real time. The kind normally reserved for creative games of Football Manager.

The return leg was even more memorable.

Van Dijk, enjoying his Southampton heyday, put his side in front before Yuto Nagatomo's own goal handed Saints a historic 2-1 victory. They did not progress past the group stage, but they had beaten three-time European champions Inter Milan. That alone was enough to satisfy. Enough to point towards an irreversible upwards curve. Potential on its course to excellence.

Alas. Sudden success has turned into a scourge.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Southampton boss Ruben Selles says the players and staff must share responsibility for their problems this season

Koeman was lured to Goodison Park prior to Saints' European foray, tempted by the promise of the biggest transfer budget in Everton's history by majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri. The loss rocked St Mary's but was not completely catastrophic. They turned to former Lyon and Nice boss Claude Puel, who ultimately fell victim to Southampton's admirably unreasonable expectations.

He oversaw an eighth-placed finish as Saints made it all the way to the League Cup final at Wembley - akin to the waves Brighton are making now. Eighth was solid, respectable. An overachievement. Not according to the Southampton board, who promptly gave Puel his marching orders shortly after the season had finished.

Granted the football was not as pretty, and lacked the flair and verve of the Koeman age, but it was productive enough to ensure stability. A total of six managers (one caretaker), including current head coach Ruben Selles, have taken the helm since Puel's exit. None have outperformed the Frenchman's win percentage (38).

Having won two of their first three games under Ruben Selles, Saints are now winless in their last six
Image: Southampton are without a win in 10 Premier League games under Selles (D3 L7)

This is a case of a dramatic rise - Southampton were competing in League One as recently as 2011 - leading to one almighty fall. Perhaps Leicester can be categorised similarly. They too are victims of their own success, albeit the comedown from winning Premier League glory as 5,000/1 outsiders is altogether different from the predicament unravelling on the south coast.

Southampton's five-year plan, circa 2017, was geared towards breaking the Premier League's top four in coming seasons. Now they find themselves staring into the abyss, holding a one-way ticket to the Championship.

If Saints were once ahead of the curve - using a data-led approach to unearth young talent and shop in savvy player markets at low risk - they have now fallen frightfully behind it. Competitors caught up, cruising by in the outside lane while Saints sat idle on the hard shoulder.

The model in operation just along the A27, 70 miles east of Southampton in Brighton, is making matters worse. The Seagulls are now the pride of the south coast, soaring ever higher after years of steady improvement and consistent recruitment. They are the envy of most middle-sized clubs with modest budgets.

Indeed, there was a time where Brighton aspired to emulate Southampton or Leicester. How the tables have turned.

James Ward-Prowse reacts during Southampton's loss at Nottingham Forest
Image: Saints captain James Ward-Prowse looks dejected after they suffered their 23rd loss of the season to Nottingham Forest

Withstanding a relentless drain of talent, both on and off the pitch, is the area in which Brighton have succeeded where rivals have not. The football at the Amex Stadium is just as effective and bears just as much fruit as before Ben White was poached by Arsenal or Marc Cucurella by Chelsea, or Dan Burn left for Newcastle and technical director Dan Ashworth followed, or Yves Bissouma and Leandro Trossard chose to head for different sides of north London.

There has been a purge on Brighton's best talent for years and nothing much has changed. Like a well-oiled assembly line. Neatly summed up by the seamless transition from Graham Potter as head coach to the enigmatic Roberto De Zerbi.

Southampton, comparatively, have lost their way, abandoning principles once held dear to the club in a desperate attempt to survive. When a ship is sinking it requires life rafts, not rubber rings. Replacing experienced manager Ralph Hasenhuttl with Nathan Jones - a novice who was untried and untested at top-flight level - back in November, was perhaps the most fatal mistake of all.


Jones turned out to be the shortest serving permanent manager in Southampton history, characterised by a circus of commotion and blame-shifting.

In the three months he was in charge the club sank to the bottom of the Premier League, while wasting millions of pounds in a misused January transfer market on players who are either consigned to the substitutes' bench or do not make the matchday squad at all. Croatia international Mislav Orsic is the best example of such misdirection, having played just six miserly minutes of Premier League football since his £8m January arrival.

Southampton are without a win in 11 Premier League games, losing eight of those, after winning two of their first three under Selles. Overall, they have lost 24 times this term, smashing the previous club-record for a 38-game campaign.

Indeed, an ill-fated trip to Nottingham Forest on Monday Night Football was Saints' season summed up. The burden of expectation clearly weighing heavy on fragile young shoulders - their softness and naivety laid bare.

"We were ready to come, ready to perform, but for one reason or another, some details went against us, details from ourselves," a sorrowful Selles told Sky Sports. "That is painful because by just correcting those things we could be in a much better position." Relegation was confirmed a mere five days later.

At the bitter end, Southampton are a side where pride is all that is left to play for. Such a prolonged malaise has taken its weary toll, while a once indignant fanbase turned increasingly indifferent as hopes of survival were extinguished with every passing week. Each display tinged with a greater sense of foreboding.

Perhaps paying the ultimate price of relegation and restarting the up-cycle from scratch is what needs to happen for years of chaos and conflict to give way to calmer waters.

Around Sky