A lot of clubs have spent the season yo-yoing around the Premier League. In early November Bournemouth were seventh and Brighton were eighth, and now both are fighting relegation; Crystal Palace were seventh at the start of December and now they aren’t looking comfortable; Southampton have appeared doomed, safe and now look uncertain again; Burnley have crossed the halfway line eight times already. Beneath the top two, there is real competitive balance; people have always said that in the Premier League anyone can beat anyone, and this year – aside from Liverpool, and Manchester City when they turn it on – it is actually true.
As a result there are unexpected teams at the top, where Leicester are still going toe-to-toe with City and Sheffield United are in the European places, and there is real quality at the bottom. You look at Watford, West Ham, Aston Villa, Bournemouth – they have some very, very good players, and in all likelihood at least one of those teams will go down.
The story of Southampton’s season may still not have a happy ending but it has already been remarkable. Between losing 9-0 at home to Leicester in October and going down 4-0 at Anfield in their last league game they won seven of 14 league matches and never lost by more than a single goal. Most teams would have capitulated after that Leicester defeat but this one rolled up their sleeves. They have also shown the rest of the league that sometimes teams can change without sacking a manager.
I know if I was in a team who got spanked 9-0 there would be some serious conversations over the following days. I’m sure the coaching staff must have been expecting the phone to ring that night, and someone to break the bad news they were losing their jobs. In the meantime they had to plan what they were going to say to the players the next day, what the next training session was going to be. Perhaps the only way to go from there was up, but they still had to make it happen. This is where a manager really earns his money: changing tactics, rebuilding confidence, making sure the atmosphere is good and the work ethic is strong.
One thing Southampton always had in their favour was a goalscorer in Danny Ings. Of the 13 players who have scored more than 10 goals this season, only Ings and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki play for teams in the bottom half. I don’t think there are many teams involved in the relegation scrap that wouldn’t be mid-table with an in-form Ings in the lineup. A team can be hard-working, fit, resilient, but if they don’t have a goalscorer they’re going to find life difficult.
All the same, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s achievement in coaxing Southampton’s players to up their game has been extremely impressive. Thankfully I was never in that situation as a player where we had to turn things round mid-season, but I have always felt that to make that happen the club’s leadership needs to take a risk and make a change. Either the formation, the players or the manager have to be switched around, sometimes all of them; if the same people keep doing the same things they’ll get the same results.
We don’t know what was going on behind the scenes. The Saints might have approached one or more possible managers but been unable to get their target. In the meantime Hasenhüttl dropped the back three he had been experimenting with, and with a settled four results improved. Between now and the end of the season they play all of the bottom five and only two of the top six, including Sheffield United at home on the final day, and I would be surprised if they get dragged back into serious trouble. They will be a more resilient unit because of what they have come through. They know they can bounce back if they find themselves in trouble. Whatever the thinking that led to them sticking with Hasenhüttl, ultimately Southampton have done something right.
West Ham sacked Manuel Pellegrini after a run of two wins in 10 games and under David Moyes have won one in five. They might end up giving Pellegrini a £10m severance package, and so far it hasn’t bought them much. Southampton and their opponents this weekend, Burnley, show another path is possible.
Five top-flight clubs have managers who have been in post for fewer than 100 days; Sean Dyche has been at Burnley for seven years longer than that, guided the club through two promotions and a relegation, and he’s still going. Sometimes they aren’t the easiest team to watch and they must be horrible to play against. That’s what works for them and has them sitting in mid-table once again.
My only question mark over Burnley is that I don’t know how long they can just keep doing the same thing over and over again, without eventually paying a price for it. Already teams with a bit more ambition – Wolverhampton Wanderers, say, and Sheffield United this season – have come up and overtaken them, and for as long as they are happy just to keep doing what they’re doing, that is going to keep happening. I believe evolution is vital in football: you’ve got to continue to push. Even little improvements – the marginal gains that Jürgen Klopp likes to talk about – make a big difference. It’s about a club’s mentality, as much as anything else. Under Dyche Burnley have been incredibly consistent, but it can be hard to make out any evolution.
At St Mary’s on Saturday I am sure fans of both sides will feel some pride in supporting clubs that have achieved success despite refusing to change managers when many others would. And I look forward to seeing both teams evolve in the future, even if their coaching staff remain exactly the same.