At the end of the 2013/14 Premier League season, Southampton sat eighth in the table, just one place behind Manchester United. The club possessed a real sense of confidence that their young side could push on and challenge for Europe in the coming years.
But since May, virtually all of the good feeling that abounded the South Coast club has dissipated.
Southampton have experienced a summer exodus on an unprecedented scale, and real doubt has emerged over the manner in which the club’s owner, Katharina Liebherr, appears to be running Saints for profit.
Mauricio Pochettino’s departure to manage at White Hart Lane triggered something resembling a fire sale at St. Mary’s. Saints fans have had to watch on haplessly as the club sanctioned the departures of a string of their highest-profile talent.
Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren have all swapped St. Mary’s for Anfield in the past two months. And Saints’ promising young England full-backs, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers, have moved to Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively.
The cashing in on all of the club’s best players at one time is certainly not characteristic of an administration that is determined to push for European qualification in the near future.
This particularly appears to be the case when the only funds that have so far been reinvested in the team have yielded two unproven signings from the Eredivisie—Dusan Tadic from FC Twente and Graziano Pelle from Feyenoord—the league in which the club’s new manager, Ronald Koeman, was previously employed.
Champions League qualification was exactly the sort of lofty ambition that Nicola Cortese articulated during his time as executive chairman on the South Coast.
As Pochettino himself stated in a press conference last year: “I’m not really keen on the Europa League. We're [referring to Cortese and the board] all more attracted to the Champions League.”
Cortese is the man widely attributed with having masterminded Saints’ resurrection from their 2009 nadir. His resignation in January, therefore, was widely seen as reflective of a lack of ambition on Liebherr’s part to grow the club as the Italian intended.
Katharina Liebherr inherited the club after the death of her late father, Markus, in 2010 and, despite repeated declarations of her desire to keep Southampton in the family, her ownership has been viewed with scepticism (perhaps even sexism?) owing to the fact that she has no real interest in football.
The current exodus certainly does not give the appearance that Liebherr harbours meaningful commitment to Saints; and Ralph Krueger’s statement that the sales were a part of “a clear strategic approach” is very difficult to take seriously when viewed in the context of the gallows humour that Ronald Koeman has been forced to resort to ahead of the new season.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue with Krueger’s statement that the club did not push the sales of any key players this summer. In the case of all five deals, the money was simply too good to turn down.
For a club in considerable debt, the prospect of rejecting £30 million for a 19-year-old left-back, or £25 million for Adam Lallana (Toni Kroos moved to Real Madrid for £5 million less this summer), is ludicrous.
The same logic applies for the £16 million fee recouped for Calum Chambers and for the £20 million that Liverpool paid for Lovren. The club made a hefty profit on the Lovren deal, while Chambers had made just 23 first-team appearances in his career.
Even the £4 million extracted from Liverpool for a 32-year-old Rickie Lambert constitutes an impressive piece of business.
Ultimately, the mass exodus from St. Mary’s is neither prudent business nor a clear demonstration of the ownership's intention to extract maximum wealth from the club before selling it on.
After all, Southampton needs to have some value in it if it is to yield a decent price on the market.
Rather, the summer sale on the South Coast is a reflection of economic reality.
A club in Southampton’s financial position cannot afford to turn down the kind of money that is being thrown at teenagers and fringe England players by Premier League rivals. And this is particularly true in the era of Financial Fair Play.
But focus for Saints now has to be firmly set on reinvesting some of that £92 million into the first-team squad.
Because, as things stand, keeping Southampton in the top flight may be the greatest challenge that Ronald Koeman has faced in a 17-year career as manager.