As July shines into our lives hopefully bringing some sunshine and happiness, so too does it bring the traditional summer of transition for Southampton. Claude Puel has been announced as the club’s new manager and maybe, just maybe, this can finally herald a new age of calm and progress at St. Mary’s.
Puel brings an impressive CV with him, at least in terms of French football. He has been managing in Ligue 1 every season bar two since 2000 and has a knack of getting the best out of solid-if-unspectacular clubs. He won the title – his only to date – with Monaco in his debut season only to be sacked following a dismal mid-table finish the following year. After taking a year out, he returned to management with Lille in 2002, a club showing promise despite only returning to the top flight two years previous.
Puel spent six seasons in charge of Lille and grew a reputation for building defensive foundations first, with pragmatic tactics and a strong, unified mentality. He guided the club to second place in his third season and, with that, qualification for the Champions League group stages. His team only managed one goal – a 1-0 home win over Manchester United – in the six group games, though that was enough to finish third and enter into the UEFA Cup were they defeated Shakhtar Donetsk before bowing out to the eventual winners Sevilla. By now, Puel’s Lille had added an attacking flair to his side to accompany their solid defence.
They finished third in Ligue 1 that year and once again qualified for the Champions League. This time, they finished second in the group and went out to Manchester United in the last 16. A good achievement for a modestly-sized club. His final two seasons were spent in mid-table however, but his success was enough for Lyon – who had won seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles – to give him the top job after Alain Perrin had been sacked.
L’équipe reporting that Claude Puel’s move to #saintsfc is imminent. Really good coach, big fan. Interesting move.
— Andrew Gibney (@Gibney_A) June 27, 2016
Unfortunately, Puel’s time at Lyon was a failure. Despite spending three seasons in charge and inheriting a squad containing Karim Benzema, Sidney Govou and the emerging Hugo Lloris, he never managed to win the title. The highlight of his reign being a semi-final appearance in the Champions League in his second year. A lot of money was spent for what was essentially a regression for Les Gones. He was sacked and took a year out of football before returning with OGC Nice in 2012.
The French manager was reborn at the Riviera club and despite a blip in his second season – when they narrowly avoided relegation – he has overseen the team’s steady rise up the table. Last season they finished fourth, missing out on second spot by just two points. Hatem Ben Arfa’s career has been revitalised by Puel too, so much so that there the flamboyant midfielder has now signed for PSG after being linked with a move to Barcelona earlier in the summer.
All of this brings us back to Southampton, a club that needs stability now more than ever. At the end of last season, Saints fans believed they finally had a base in which to launch a serious assault for a Champions League spot. Instead, they have seen manager Ronald Koeman surprisingly abandon ship to join Everton, Victor Wanyama leave to join Tottenham and Saido Mane make a £30 million switch to Anfield. Suddenly, and all over again, Southampton have taken another bruising.
On the bright side, Puel has a lot of pedigree and looks to be a smart, considered appointment. Over the years he has shown he can build a mean defence and combine it with a fluid attack. Graziano Pelle and Shane Long should again lead the line although the questions of who will take Mane’s place remains. Southampton still have superb players and with a transfer kitty of at least £50m at their disposal, they will undoubtedly add to that talent.
Over the years the club has proven itself to be a shrewd operator in the transfer market and have one of the best scouting systems in the Premier League so fans can relax, their club is in safe hands – and not just with Fraser Forster.
Jason Coulter, Pundit Arena