Pressure growing on Mauricio Pellegrino at toothless Southamptonby Colin Millar / 21 November 2017, 08:34Tweet
When Southampton announced the appointment of Mauricio Pellegrino to replace Claude Puel in summer, fans of the club must have felt a sense of déjà vu.
Four years previously they’d also appointed an Argentine boss named Mauricio who was plucked from Spain’s La Liga, with Pochettino even carrying a similar surname.
That is where the similarities appear to end; whilst the current Tottenham boss enjoyed a stark rise to prominence in his 18-month spell at St. Mary’s, the current incumbent in the Saints hot seat has not enjoyed such a seamless start to life in England.
Pellegrino’s side are one of eight teams to be averaging less than a goal a game in the division with only nine goals and three wins from their opening 12 league fixtures. Perhaps more worryingly for the South Coast side, Saturday’s heavy defeat at Anfield marks the start of a very tough run for the club. Their next nine league fixtures include clashes with Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United. Their opening 11 clashes featured only one match against a top six opponent - a narrow home defeat to the Red Devils.
Last season’s run to the League Cup final will live long in the memory for many Saints fans and was former manager Puel’s one notable success during his tenure, yet this season saw a meek home exit at the hands of Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers.
In their last 17 home matches in all competitions, they have won only three times - only once by more than a single goal - and have lost 10 of those, whilst in only five did they manage to score a goal. Many fans were displeased with Puel’s brand of football - regarded as dull and overly methodical - while his successor has yet to prove he is the man to bring back a more ambitious style of playing.
Yet it would be wrong to criticise the Argentine on these grounds and those familiar with his Alaves side from the previous campaign should not have expected attacking football in its purest form. Many would argue his achievements with the Basque side were the finest by any Head Coach in Spain outside of Zinedine Zidane’s all-conquering Real Madrid side. In their first season back in the top flight in over a decade, the Vitoria-based side recorded a comfortable top-half finish and reached the Copa Del Rey showpiece against Barcelona.
This was achieved without any notable investment and a modest squad comprised of eight loanees alongside free agents and cut-price deals. Pellegrino had not won the side promotion and the decision to dismiss Segunda title winner Jose Bordalas was initially met with criticism and bewilderment by fans of El Glorioso. Pellegrino was somewhat of a surprise appointment; he’d endured a relatively unsuccessful six-month stint at Valencia four seasons previously before returning to his homeland to coach top-flight Estudiantes and Independiente.
But any doubts over his pedigree were swiftly forgotten as he started the season with a four-game unbeaten streak including an opening day draw at Atletico Madrid before a sensational victory at Barcelona two match days later. It was a season of memorable results - they beat Villarreal home and away, remained unbeaten against Atletico, took six points from Betis and four from Athletic Bilbao, whilst also beating Valencia, Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo, alongside their run to the Copa Del Rey decider – the first domestic final in the club’s history.
These achievements were remarkable, loan pair Marcos Llorente and Theo Hernandez were earmarked as future stars yet this was a side who many thought would struggle to retain their top flight status. Success arrived through a swiftly-formed yet formidable team spirit and defensively solidity - they conceded only two more league goals than champions Real Madrid. Pellegrino established his reputation as a cautious coach - only three sides (all in the bottom four) netted fewer than their 41 league goals .
His departure over summer came as no surprise, his stock had rocketed and Alaves were in no financial position to push on and establish themselves as a club comfortable in the upper echelons of Spain’s top flight. Star loanees inevitably departed and the squad would have to be restructured, while Southampton swooped for the in-demand boss.
He inherited problems at Southampton too, this is a squad who had punched above their weight under Pochetinno and then Ronald Koeman, but the continued selling of star players could only be maintained by equally impressive recruitment and in the past 18 months that has not been the case. Financially they were never going to compete with the top six clubs, but Everton, Leicester and Watford were among those to prioritise strengthening their squad over summer.
Problems in the current squad remained, Virgil Van Dijk has been notably unsettled since summer interested appeared, while Charlie Austin’s lack of fitness along with Shane Long’s and Marco Gabbiadini’s lack of form has led to a drought in front of goal.
These problems are not necessarily of Pellegrino’s making but little suggests he is a coach capable of handling these situations. Scrutiny now falls on the club’s decision makers if results do not improve to see if this is a project they want to continue persisting with.