Saints count cost of selling star players year after year

IT was only a matter of time before Southampton counted the cost of selling its best players, year after year.

Manchester City midfielder David Silva shoots past Stoke City goalkeeper Jack Butland to score his and his team’s second goal against Stoke City during their English Premier League match at the Bet365 Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent, central England, on Monday. Beating Stoke 2-0 restored City’s 16-point lead and increased the possibility that Pep Guardiola’s side could clinch the EPL title by beating Manchester United, which now lies second, at home in the derby on April 7.

IT was only a matter of time before Southampton counted the cost of selling its best players, year after year.

This season, it seems, might be the breaking point.

With the south coast club just one point above the English Premier League’s relegation zone, Southampton fired manager Mauricio Pellegrino in a late attempt to stop its slide out of the lucrative English top flight.

There was a sense of inevitability about the announcement late on Monday, two days after a 0-3 loss to Newcastle United. Pellegrino’s body language spoke volumes, as did his criticism of the team’s players.

“I observed some players who gave up and we cannot show this,” Pellegrino said. “You can lose, you can play badly, but you have to show another face on the pitch.

“For this reason, I would like to say sorry to our fans because we couldn’t represent our club properly.”

Those damning words apparently hastened Pellegrino’s exit.

The 46-year-old Argentine coach joined on a three-year deal in June last year, weeks after leaving Spanish team Alaves. The hope among Southampton fans was that Pellegrino would bring more entertainment than had been provided by his predecessor, Claude Puel, but they were to be disappointed.

Pellegrino was unable to add more attacking flair, with Southampton scoring only 29 goals in 30 league matches. The Saints have only won five of those games in total, with just one win coming in the last 17 matches — against last-place West Bromwich Albion.

To make matters worse, Puel has made a decent start at his new club, Leicester City, which has climbed to eighth in the EPL and reached the quarterfinals of the FA Cup.

For many, this situation had been coming at Southampton.

In January, the club sold Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool for US$100 million, a world-record fee for a defender.

Since 2014, the Saints have sold — among others — Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Nathaniel Clyne to Liverpool, Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin to Manchester United, and Toby Alderweireld and Victor Wanyama to Tottenham Hotspur.

Southampton established a reputation for developing young talent through its renowned academy and also replacing the players it sold for big money with cheaper ones from across Europe. But this policy was always likely to catch up with the club eventually and Southampton is struggling now to preserve its six-year status as an EPL team.

In this sense, Pellegrino was fighting against the tide but he hasn’t helped himself with his negative tactics. Recently, fans have been calling for Pellegrino to play two strikers up front to be more of a threat in attack.

But the likes of Manolo Gabbiadini and Shane Long have struggled, new signing Guido Carrillo hasn’t scored in eight appearances since joining from Monaco for a club-record 19 million pounds (US$23.51 million), and Charlie Austin — the most prolific striker at the club — has had long spells out injured.

The loss at Newcastle was arguably the low point of the season for Southampton, with Pellegrino saying after the game: “I haven’t seen my team compete in this way this season, without the spirit you need to compete at this level.”

The possible replacements for Pellegrino include Marco Silva, fired by Watford in January, and Mark Hughes, who was fired by Stoke City in the same month.

Wales’ Hughes is the bookmakers’ favorite while former West Ham United boss Slaven Bilic is also in the mix in the betting to take over at St Mary’s Stadium.

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