There were boos as the players left the field at half-time. Such details can be forgotten after a restorative win, featuring a special goal by a summer signing and secured by a much weakened team.
Claude Puel, a man who normally has the demeanour of a civil servant, was uncharacteristically animated when Sofiane Boufal condemned Middlesbrough to defeat. It was understandable. Sunday marked the start of life without Charlie Austin for Southampton, a four-month period without their only player who seems capable of putting the ball in the net with any regularity. It threatens to be a pivotal period for Puel.
His team are in the upper half of the table, despite their annual summer sale. They are in the last four of the EFL, nearing a first final of any competition for 13 years. Puel may yet join Lawrie McMenemy in the select band of managers to bring silverware to Southampton. On the face of it, much is well at a club who appear a role model.
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Yet the boos told a tale. They reflected a dissatisfaction with Southampton's lame Europa League exit to the Israeli side Hapeol Be'er Sheva. The local paper, the Southern Daily Echo, was deluged with critical comments from fans about Puel. They could be dismissed as a knee-jerk reaction to what, despite beating Inter Milan, was still an underwhelming European campaign.
But misgivings have been growing, and not just on social media. It is not Puel’s fault that Southampton sold Sadio Mane, but they have been stripped of dynamism in his reign. Only Middlesbrough have scored fewer Premier League goals and 43 per cent of Southampton’s 14 came from the sidelined Austin. Puel’s caution seems counter-productive at times. In effect, he favours three defensive midfielders.
His tactical negativity has raised eyebrows. There was some surprise within the club that Puel began the campaign with a diamond midfield, even though it was a formation he favoured in France. But it does not suit several Southampton players, particularly Steven Davis, whose excellence last year went largely unnoticed, nor Austin, a striker not equipped to spend his time chasing full-backs.
The poacher started the season on the bench. It is why it is hard to argue Puel’s finest formula was planned. His defence were configured to keep clean sheets — they have 10 already — but it only became a winning recipe when Austin’s incision was added. Last month’s 1-0 victory against Everton appeared the definitive Puel triumph: forgettable but featuring an Austin goal and another clean sheet.
But the injured attacker is the only Saint with more than three goals. Next comes Nathan Redmond, with three in 22 games. The winger-striker has the makings of a fine signing, but while a comparison with Thierry Henry – courtesy of an unusually quotable Puel – generated headlines, their scoring records highlight a major difference. Redmond is still more prolific than Shane Long, whose 18 appearances this season have yielded no goals. The reliance on Austin was exacerbated before it became worrying. Hopes may now rest with Boufal to replicate his brilliance against Middlesbrough, but the Moroccan will head to the African Cup of Nations in January.
The risk is that Southampton are left looking sterile. Certainly Puel has to stumble on another solution. His bravest choices thus far have been among his best. He merits most credit for trusting youth, something his predecessor Ronald Koeman rarely did, and Josh Sims and Sam McQueen have offered particular encouragement for the future.
Yet short-termism is ingrained in football. Austin was Southampton’s pragmatist supreme, delivering results, sometimes in scrappy fashion. That is why it has seemed business as normal at the opposite of a crisis club. Yet despite the lack of goals, these are quietly interesting times at St Mary’s. The next few months should be revealing. The reality is that, after the high-water mark of a sixth-place finish last season, Southampton were likely to slip down the table but safety-first football will ensure survival. Yet should decline prove more dramatic than the games, the soundtrack may assume more significance for Puel.
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