It’s fair to say that Claude Puel’s tenure at Southampton has been quite the slow-burner so far. A similar sort of appointment to Mauricio Pochettino, the Frenchman arrived with no managerial reputation whatsoever on these shores, but those who followed his work more closely sung his praises.
Yet there seems to be a much more different feel in the air than when the current Tottenham boss stepped into the St Mary’s hotseat. The Argentine’s arrival saw a popular manager in Nigel Adkins ruthlessly dismissed despite the-then newly promoted team sitting in relative safety in the Premier League.
But even though his trademark pressing style was physically-demanding, with Jack Cork claiming that he felt ‘like you need two hearts’ to play the system wanted by the new head coach, it looked like Pochettino had won the players over after his first training session, even if the fans were more than dubious.
Puel has come into Southampton having had pre-season to get the team used to his ideas, a luxury that Pochettino did not have, but the change from a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation favoured both by the latter and Ronald Koeman, to a narrow 4-3-1-2 has seen Saints splutter.
It does not really matter if the fans are not totally convinced yet; after all, the 4-3-3 wasn’t exactly popular when it was first brought in following the return to the top-flight four years ago, and it felt like it was forced upon Adkins from above rather something that he had wanted to play, but it became Saints’ preferred set-up soon enough.
But it seems like the players are not happy with the system, which is a much more serious proposition altogether. The Southampton squad isn’t exactly filled with your typical ‘prima donna’ figures, but from Virgil Van Dijk’s rather irritable post-match interview after the 1-1 draw at home to Sunderland, to Shane Long’s obvious displeasure of being taken off at Manchester United the week before, you begin to sense that all isn’t exactly running smoothly.
While there is a minimal chance that Puel will be sacked anytime soon, he is coming to a run of games that already feels like games that are vitally important to win. After the trip to North London to face Arsenal in what is essentially a chance to win bonus points comes three games, all at home and all crucial for the season ahead.
Sparta Prague come to town on September 15 in the Europa League. It should be a party atmosphere and a time to celebrate the Saints’ progress in the Liebherr era, but a poor performance and dropped points will see that feel like rather the damp squib.
The following Sunday after the European excursion sees Swansea City arrive for Premier League action before the trio of home games in six days finishes with Crystal Palace in the League Cup; a run that will test both the strength and depth of Puel’s available options.
It is a run that should see Saints be targeting six points and cup progression, but there seems to be far more at stake. A maximum haul with decent performances, even if there are still some teething problems, will ease concerns that the diamond does not work and that things can improve.
But dropped points or a knockout by Palace will see that feeling of uncertainty stick around, and much of it centres around Puel. Unfairly for him, he has stepped into a job where he was an unknown and not exactly first choice; there was much more clamour for someone like Manuel Pellegrini, for example.
Yet with Puel, the club seem to have that head-coach figure, who will work intensely on the training ground in much the same way as Pochettino, rather than a manager. Although he wasn’t the big name that some wanted, the Frenchman is a real ‘Saints-type’ appointment.
But he needs to quell the feeling that his employers were trying to be too outside of the box. Three wins in the run against Sparta Prague, Swansea and Palace will give him much-needed time and confidence from the players and fans that they are going in the right direction.
Any less, and Southampton enter into a winter with a rush of fixtures with question marks over the direction.
It’s not to say that Puel will be sacked after this run, but a fixture pile-up including games against Inter Milan, Chelsea and Liverpool would seem less arduous with a running jump into it. Saints fans will hope this slow burner is building up towards that big bang, otherwise the winter could be incredibly frosty.