Last night was a night of mixed emotions. On one side, our minds were filled with anger as we watched Antonio Candreva cruelly and undeservedly put Southampton to the sword. But on the other side, pride was pumping through our hearts as we watched our beloved Southampton dominate play in the historic San Siro Stadium. Regardless of how much we think about it now, we can’t change a thing; that’s football. But last night there was a decision by Southampton boss Claude Puel that we should be thinking about, as it gives us great reason to be optimistic over the future of Southampton Football Club.
As the clock struck six, Southampton had taken yet another step in completing the journey that Markus Liebherr envisioned all those years ago. The boys in red and white were finally underway against Inter Milan in the Europa League – an event that serves as a reward for the hard work of last season. But I’m not writing this to discuss the importance of such a game – anyone with even a brief knowledge of football will understand the magnitude of this tie for every Southampton fan. I’m writing this because of Puel’s selection at five o’clock and the remarkable performance that came with it.
When the teams were announced, it showed that multiple players who have been at the core of Southampton’s recent fine form were on the bench (or injured). Club captain Jose Fonte and top goalscorer Charlie Austin were told to have a rest, whilst the fit and formidable midfield partnership of Steven Davis and Jordy Clasie were also dropped. In addition to this, Matt Targett, Ryan Bertrand, Cedric Soares and Nathan Redmond were all left back in England as they continue their road to recovery from injury.
Yet despite the decision to make so many changes ahead of perhaps one of Southampton biggest ever games, the team still played the Claude Puel way. The team carried out their roles as expected, dug deep and played with an immense understanding of one another, almost as if each player was in Puel’s weekly XI. There was not even as much as a hint to suggest that any of the players on that field were squad players or youngsters.
This tells me that Puel is successfully drilling his beliefs and demands in how he believes football should be played into every player at Southampton. I must place emphasis on the term “every player” here too, as it appears that Puel views every squad member as a valuable asset who shouldn’t feel segregated in the side. This is filling players who would previously only be considered “squad players” with confidence, perhaps explaining why they are making such seamless transitions into the starting XI.
Just for a moment Imagine if during his time at Southampton, Ronald Koeman was having to plan for last night’s fixture. If he selected that same starting XI from last night, then I have no doubt in my mind that we would have lost that game in an embarrassing manner. Not because I believe that he is a bad manager – in fact, he is a fantastic and very effective one – but because players outside of his favourite XI simply didn’t have the confidence and willingness needed to perform to a high standard.
If Koeman started McQueen, Yoshida, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Romeu and Rodriguez in the same fixture, those players would have entered the pitch with a totally different mentality to that of last night. The reason being is that Koeman only ever would have considered such a line up in moments of desperation, and when players enter the field knowing that they are the weaker option, it’s easy to be turned over.
Yes, Puel is obviously helping the players to become more intelligent and skillful on the field, but it’s with the confidence and trust that he’s placed in every player at his disposal that’s making them carry out his system so effectively. In doing so, Southampton now have a plethora of options that have been created from within the squad, rather than needlessly looking to the transfer market.
Puel clearly understands that holding a happy, confident and tight-knit squad is in the fabric of success and Southampton Football Club.