It’s getting harder and harder to visualise success in the Premier League.
If Manchester City win the league and League Cup this season, that would have been seen as a hugely successful season back in August. But by now, after months of breaking records and talk of being the best team in Premier League history, to go out in the Champions League quarter finals after an FA Cup defeat at the hands of Wigan Athletic would seem anticlimactic. Even if it shouldn’t.
That shows the difficulty in framing success these days. It has become more and more binary. There’s success (winning trophies and achieving objectives to the letter) or there’s failure (everything else).
That’s even more pronounced at the bottom of the league – that clumped mass at the lower end of the table blocking up the plughole at the moment. Three can go down. If we say West Brom are already there, that leaves two places from seven or eight. It’s going to take a while for this blockage to subside: it’ll surely go down to the last day.
Bizarrely, then, Southampton have waited until now to sack their manager, with just three games left against teams who are in that bottom mash-up.
They’ve ended up here either through an arrogance in believing that, even if they’d made a mistake, they couldn’t possibly have made one which could lead to relegation, or through some misguided belief that the cream would just rise to the top. There has been no such upward movement of any team in the bottom pile-up this season – just teams beating each other.
The main reason is probably the money involved: that’s simply smashed the hierarchy inherent in the division, with top clubs, the middle class and those fighting at the bottom. Now, it’s the moneyed elite and everyone else.
But it goes further than that: the situation is supercharged by the fact that it’s so difficult to measure success.
When you’re given tens of millions of pounds and you know everyone else has the same money you need to make sure you buy good players. As a result, most teams are ‘middle class’ teams, and as such they have ‘middle class’ players: they type of player, that is, who isn’t used to relegation battles and is playing in fear of making a mistake to take his team down. Saints are full of them – Mario Lemina, Sofiane Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini, to name just a few.
But how can you be so ambitious as to want a team full of good players and make 13th place your idea of success?
It makes you wonder what the point is for most of the teams who are in this position. They are unlikely to win anything, and yet are in a constant state of stress because relegation seems like the end of the world – the end of the money anyway, and possibly culminating in a season like the one Sunderland are enduring, where double relegation is a probability. Indeed, if midtable security is to be your measure of success, perhaps a better one would would be to achieve that whilst also instilling an attractive style of play.
That’s why we shouldn’t get bogged down in the current narrative around Southampton.
The club made a mistake in sacking Claude Puel, that much is abundantly obvious. But we live in a world where safe but uninspiring football will bring you midtable mediocrity (and yes, last season a cup final, but it won’t do that every year). We should never criticise a club for wanting to break free. If they found Puel’s style of play unattractive, who are we to say be careful what you wish for? It was a mistake in hiring Mauricio Pellegrino, sure, but was it really wrong to sack Puel?
Southampton are a club in real danger now. Outside of games against Swansea, West Ham and Bournemouth, Saints face three of the top six and two of the safe midtable sides battling for seventh and – probably – the final European spot. But they are also a club who thought that just being a boring Premier League club whose idea of success was obscurity and pocketing the huge sums of money you get just by being there was akin to some form of existential nihilism.
They’ve made the wrong choice. They’ve appointed a man whose football was no better and who made strange choices in personnel. But they did it from – arguably – a good place. We might just be about to see why no one else wanted to do it.