What exactly is the ‘Southampton Way’? Apart from being the loudest and most bemusing soundbite from Les Reed during Mauricio Pellegrino’s coronation on Friday.
Back in 2012, Reed described it as; “We want to win matches by keeping the ball on the ground and therefore we have to develop players who can do that. The parents understand it, they enjoy it, they want their kids to be playing a good style of football and hopefully over time that becomes the culture of the club.”
But during that time, Southampton have employed four different managers in Nigel Adkins, Mauricio Pochettino, Ronald Koeman and Claude Puel of completely different backgrounds, completely different educations and completely different methods who, on the most part, worked with completely different starting XIs and completely different star entities.
Whilst they shared an overall trend of largely positive football during their tenures at St. Mary’s, it’s also exactly the kind of football you’d expect from a side who have finished in the Premier League’s top eight for the last four seasons. Anything less and you’d question the integrity of the English game.
Even then, when Southampton beat Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford and then drew 0-0 at the Emirates Stadium in consecutive fixtures during Koeman’s last season in charge, was that because of the ‘Southampton Way’? Was that positive football, or was that two impressive rear-guard performances that had incredibly little to do with ‘keeping the ball on the ground’?
In both games combined, the Saints produced just five shots on target, made 50 tackles, 59 clearances and averaged just 39% possession. Yet, there were few complaints to Koeman about not beating two of the top six in the ‘Southampton Way’. He certainly didn’t lose his job over it; in fact, he got arguably a better one at Everton.
“Mauricio impressed us throughout with his depth of knowledge, motivation and ability, communicating this in a professional and passionate way. He has an excellent understanding of the Southampton Way, and his style of play and aspiration matches the philosophy, culture and ambition of the club.”
Les Reed on Mauricio Pellegrino’s appointment
Of course, Reed’s declaration that new manager Pellegrino understands the ‘Southampton Way’ was as much praise for the man he’s just played a part in hiring as a swipe at the Spaniard’s predecessor Claude Puel, who seemingly got the axe because of the cautious approach he employed at times last season and his reluctance to alter it going forward – according to club legend Matt Le Tissier, anyway.
The cautious approach, by the way, that got Southampton to their second cup final since the 1970s, the cautious approach that achieved another top eight finish during a season in which Puel lost top scorer Charlie Austin and star defender Virgil van Dijk to injury halfway through.
Puel clearly didn’t get on well with everybody at St. Mary’s, but the idea that he failed to adhere to the Southampton Way is a fanciful, revisionist notion. Nobody was questioning Puel’s compatibility with the ‘Southampton Way’ at the start of the season or comparing it to his long and largely successful career in France. Suddenly, for a term that was once largely applied to the club’s youth system, Southampton have fired and hired a manager respectively because of the ‘Southampton Way’ – you have to wonder whether the club would be operating on such terms if they hadn’t come to the end of a fourth comfortable season.
“I think most people thought it was a little step backwards last season. Had Claude wanted to change and been a little more attacking I think he would have still been in charge at the start of next season. I don’t think he was prepared to go along with those lines.”
Matt Le Tissier on Claude Puel’s dismissal
In a results-based industry, it very much feels like snobbery for snobbery’s sake, luxury for the sake of luxury and it’s not only Southampton who have been bitten by the bug. Throughout four years at West Ham in which he re-established them as a non-relegation-fearing Premier League side, Sam Allardyce was constantly criticised for not adhering to the ‘West Ham Way’ – a principle that he outright rejected from near enough the start of his tenure. But once again, what actually is the ‘West Ham Way’?
“There has never been a ‘West Ham way’ shown to me, not by anyone who has worked at the club. I’ve spoken to a lot of people at the club and no one can tell me what it is, so it is a bit of a delusion.”
Sam Allardyce on the ‘West Ham Way’
Back in the 1960s, the term had real relevance as West Ham produced some of the best football in the country. But somewhere in between Marco Boogers nearly killing Gary Neville and James Collins becoming a cult hero in east London, the idea of the ‘West Ham Way’ lost all meaning. By the time Allardyce turned up at Upton Park, the ‘West Ham Way’ meant losing games and relegation.
Nonetheless, Allardyce’s contract was not renewed in 2015, once again after a succession of relatively comfortable seasons, as the cries for a return to the ‘West Ham Way’ became louder and louder. Twelve months later, he became England manager, and almost twelve months after that, successor Slaven Bilic saw off relegation with a run of four clean sheets and just four goals in five games. Hardly a case study in champagne football; hardly the ‘West Ham Way’. Just like with Koeman, however, you won’t hear too many West Ham fans complaining now they’re in the Premier League for another year.
Compare that to Leicester City, a club who’ve never declared to have a ‘Leicester Way’ of playing. They won the Premier League title by not conceding and punishing teams on the counter-attack; a formula uncovered almost by accident as the talents of Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante came to the fore. Would West Ham and Southampton fans – or for that matter, the clubs’ owners – turn down a Premier League title because it wasn’t won in their way of playing? Of course not.
No doubt, a distinctive style of playing comes with its benefits. It can attract certain types of players, it can create a culture or philosophy that provides continuity during frequent changes in management and playing personnel. Perhaps that’s why Les Reed is so determined to encourage one at Southampton, a club that that has made habit of selling rather than buying success, making itself a feeder club for the Premier League’s elite.
Yet, the problem with having a ‘Way’ of playing is that it only really applies when sections of a club want it to. When the fans or the board aren’t happy with a manager but the results are too good to justify a dismissal, the old adage of the ‘Way’ is suddenly carted out, usually after several seasons of relative comfort.
But if Pellegrino turns out to be a flop and Southampton find themselves facing relegation come March-time, will they appoint a manager committed to the ‘Southampton Way’, prepared to suffer relegation for the sake of their stylistic principles, or simply someone who can get them out of trouble?
The answer is obvious, as is the fallacy of the ‘Way’. It’s not a philosophy; it’s a luxury and a hypocrisy. The ‘Way’ only becomes relevant when disgruntled sections of a club can afford it to because there is a perception of safety. But when backs are against the wall or trophies are on the horizon, nobody cares about how a team gets itself over the line – just that they get there.