Southampton’s devastating 6-1 defeat to Liverpool in this week’s League Cup isn’t the reason Ronald Koeman should be starting to worry. All it has done is bring into sharp focus the decline of his side. Unless The Saints can bounce back and go on a sustained run, there’s a chance they will become the next Swansea City.
‘Second Season Syndrome’ is well documented. There is also evidence that ‘Second Phase Syndrome’ exists. It is where a club finds its footing after surviving the difficult second season and settle into an upward progression. Unfortunately this doesn’t ensure a buffer is created between newly promoted teams and the ones that have been momentarily dislodged from their perch.
The English top flight moves too fast for any team to rest on its laurels or allow a squad to become stagnant. This applies from top to bottom. Last season Chelsea prevented Manchester City from retaining the title by recruiting more effectively in key areas. This season, one of the reasons Aston Villa have dropped to the bottom of the pile is poor recruitment and further loss of top talent.
Casting an eye at Swansea and back to Southampton is a fair comparison. Both came to the Premier League with a good style of play while using players that were the envy of larger clubs. They also lost coaches to teams expected to challenge for honours and lost key players for the same reason.
Throughout this upheaval the footballing principles have remained at both clubs and shrewd signings have replaced the big money transfers. But as Garry Monk is discovering at Swansea, a good ideology and attempting to compete tactically only goes so far. He has gone from being linked to the Arsenal job to clinging on to his role at Swansea.
It’s not quite as bad for Koeman. In reality his team are only threee points behind the Liverpool side that thumped Saints in the cup. But sufferers of ‘Second Phase Syndrome’ are caught out by its gradual cancerous growth.
They have gone from a surprise package at the top of the table to watching other clubs settle into the Europa League spots. This during a period where Graziano Pellè has actually improved his all-round game, making the root cause of the drop-off harder to fix for Koeman.
This will sound an alarmist reaction to most fans, especially when it’s noted Saints have only lost one away game (to Manchester City), and are reasonably placed to push on. The problem is best highlighted how no one would put money on them finishing above Tottenham Hotspur this year – but it was a very popular bet last season. It’s not just Spurs that look better at this moment in time, West Ham and Crystal Palace have gone above them in the pecking order.
The nine teams they sit below look stronger overall. What’s worrying is Chelsea will slowly climb the table and push them further away from the Europa League places and Stoke City seemed to have turned a corner under Mark Hughes. A betting man would fancy them to finish above Southampton at this point.
It leaves them in the nether zone between threatening for Europe and the messy relegation battle. The mid-table obscurity Aston Villa have mastered over the years but kindly vacated this season.
Ronald Koeman has more than a passing resemblance to Barney Rubble, and like his prehistoric counterpart, he’s trying to fix age old problems. Even those with vaster resources struggle to keep moving with the times. It’s a difficult period in Southampton’s development.
Unless they identify the right transfer targets moving forward, and provide better incentive to retain their best players, they will constantly flirt with becoming a top six side before suffering slides down the standings.