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Inside the Southampton Black Box Informing Their Manager Carousel

Tim Wigmore@@timwigContributor IJune 26, 2017

Mauricio Pellegrino will be calling the shots on the touchline at St Mary's.
Mauricio Pellegrino will be calling the shots on the touchline at St Mary's.Francisco Seco/Associated Press

A new summer—and another new boss for Southampton Football Club. For the third summer out of four, Southampton have appointed a new manager; this time, Mauricio Pellegrino replaced the sacked Claude Puel.

Pellegrino is the club’s fourth manager in three years, following Mauricio Pochettino, Ronald Koeman and Puel. Yet, perhaps this apparent lack of stability is no impediment: Southampton’s structure is designed to limit the power of any individual manager and prevent the club’s progress from being undermined when a manager leaves.

Over the last two seasons, 136 managers have left jobs in the top four tiers of English football. So, since the start of 2015/16, the average club has had 1.5 managers who either resigned or were sacked. Last season, sacked managers were in post for an average of only 1.16 years—the lowest figure ever, according to the League Managers’ Association.

The age—always exaggerated—when managers could bend clubs according to their wills passed long ago. In the 1930s, Herbert Chapman not only coached Arsenal magnificently but led the club to introduce numbered shirts as well as build floodlights and a new stand.

The era of the managerial autocrat is dead. In its stead, clubs must adapt to a new normal of ephemeral managers. And they must wrestle with a fundamental question: If managers aren't going to be sticking around very long, how can they still build stability—and prevent tumult and chaos whenever exiting?

In English football, perhaps no club has provided a better answer to the question than Southampton. Here the manager is not an omnipotent figure but instead merely one of a coterie making the club’s crucial decisions. Stability is provided by other sources.

Les Reed, who has been at the club since 2010, now vice-chairman of football, functions much like a general manager in U.S. sports. And there is a wider structure that avoids dependence on any one individual. Such an approach has long existed in other European leagues but seldom in English football. This approach is allowing Saints to plan for the long term in an age of transitory managers.

Southampton did not waste much time in replacing Claude Puel.
Southampton did not waste much time in replacing Claude Puel.Frank Augstein/Associated Press

In 2009/10, the club finished seventh in League One, the third tier51st in the English football pyramid. Yet in the four seasons from 2013 to 2017, they have finished eighth, seventh, sixth and eighth in the Premier League. It is the first time in the club’s history they have finished in the top 10 for four years in a row.

Southampton have managed all this while spending significantly less on footballers than most rivals. From summer 2010 to the end of 2016/17, Southampton had a net spend of £18.6 million, according to transfermarkt; West Ham, who finished below Southampton for the past four seasons, had a net spend of £135 million in this time.

Southampton have also consistently overperformed relative to wages. In 2012/13, Southampton came 14th in the Premier League with the 18th highest wages; in 2013/14, they finished eighth with the 14th highest wages; in 2014/15 the club came seventh with the ninth highest wages; and in 2015/16, the last year for which data is available, they came sixth with the joint eighth highest wages.

By most metrics, Southampton have barely been more stable than other teams. Pellegrino is their fifth permanent manager since the start of 2013; in 2014 and 2016, their manager was poached by other Premier League clubs. A number of star players have gone the same way. Within seven months in 2014, Southampton lost five leading players, their manager and their chairman, and they made a £30 million profit in the transfer market, sparking predictions of doom. Instead, they calmly improved on their previous season’s performance.

Southampton have deliberately cultivated a system that mitigates a manager’s importance, ensuring continuity that can outlast any boss’ tenure. "One of the mistakes many clubs make is they don't commit to a strategy and move the goal posts all the time," Ross Wilson, Southampton's Director of Football Operations and one of the club’s most senior decision-makers, explained in an interview with me several weeks before the recent managerial changes.

At Staplewood, Southampton's £40 million training centre nestled in the leafy Hampshire village of Marchwood, lies the club’s "black box." This room, which only Southampton’s inner circle have permanent access to, is the centrepiece of the club’s forward planning. "It enables us to present a lot of information in a way that keeps everything clear, on message, structured," Wilson said. The black box contains a live database of data and video highlights from European leagues that the club monitor. The rationale is simple: to allow Southampton to identify suitable players to sign.

Manolo Gabbiadini was brought in by Southampton in January.
Manolo Gabbiadini was brought in by Southampton in January.Tim Ireland/Associated Press

"The list is always evolving and always current," Wilson explained. Southampton invariably know who they want to sign in the next transfer window. Around 20 players are tracked in each position at any one time, and there is a shortlist of four or five primary targets for each position.

Manolo Gabbiadini, who joined from Napoli in January and promptly won the Premier League’s PFA Fans’ Player of the Month award in his first full month, was tracked even before he signed for his previous club in January 2015. "Once he wasn't playing regularly enough at Napoli, we knew he was too good to be a player that was going to be quite happy just to sit on the Napoli bench and play now and again."

Much the same was true with Oriol Romeu, who Southampton tracked back in his days at Barcelona, before he joined Chelsea. Wilson said: "We were aware of his potential before he came to Chelsea, and we just kept tracking him in the hope that we could get him from Chelsea at some point if he wasn’t going to be a main player there… A lot of the players that join here have been in our thinking for two, three, four years."

While "data's become more prominent now than even a year ago," and video technology is becoming more sophisticated too, the use of dozens of metrics tracking players’ attributes has not marginalised the traditional scout. "The absolute heart of our scouting and recruitment is our scouts that we have out on the ground," Wilson explained. All players are seen by multiple scouts before Southampton attempt to sign them. Whenever possible, scouting meetings occur at Staplewood, ensuring scouts are "absolutely embedded in what we expect as a club."

Scouts also conduct in-depth checks of players' characters—their personalities, attitudes in training and even their social habitsto gauge whether they would fit in easily. "I don't think you can put a number on character," Wilson said. "We certainly put a big emphasis on finding out as much as we possibly can about that player, whether on the pitch or off the pitch, before he comes here. That’s a big role of our scouts."

Such forward-planning is essential if a club of Southampton’s size is to thrive in modern football. "We've got to be prepared all the time," Wilson reflected. "There might be a certain position that we don't expect to sign a player for two or three years and then something might happen."

Southampton’s recruitment system is designed to minimise impetuosity and chance. The shortlist of players is monitored by Wilson, Reed, Bill Green, the chief scout, and the manager. Players are brought through a consultative process. "The manager would have the final say in terms of who the player is," Wilson said, though it is ultimately left to others to conduct the final negotiations.

The club’s success recruiting players has been underpinned by several principles. Whenever possible, they buy early in the transfer window, avoiding the bedlam of deadline day unless they identify bargains.

Rather than overstretching themselves, the club have nurtured a competitive advantage in scouting in several European countries. Southampton have recruited productively from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal and have been particularly astute in exploiting the Scottish market, signing centre back Virgil van Dijk, goalkeeper Fraser Forster and midfielder Victor Wanyama from Celtic in the past three years. "We're not scouting in the South American market, or the African or Asian market, at this moment in time," said Wilson. "The structure that we've worked has enabled us to hopefully do well enough in the European marketplace."

Southampton have tapped into the Scottish market superbly, with Virgil van Dijk a fine addition.
Southampton have tapped into the Scottish market superbly, with Virgil van Dijk a fine addition.Frank Augstein/Associated Press

The third principle informing their recruitment is the emphasis on young players who are still developing. "We're conscious of the potential that that player can improve here," Wilson explained. Such younger players are more likely to have sizeable resell value.

Even as new managers have arrived, Southampton have not deviated from these principles. "I wouldn't say the job's changed," said Wilson. "We've stuck to our strategy and kept trying to identify opportunities in our way."

Southampton’s structure will not be radically altered by Pellegrino, either. This reflects their focus on ensuring managers fit in with their system—rather than the club adapting to managers.

Reed has a dossier of potential coaches that is constantly updated, with intelligence on those considered the best fits for Southamptonespecially handy when managers leave during their contracts, as happened in 2014 and 2016. There were only nine days between Puel's being sacked and Pellegrino's being confirmed as his replacement, showing how the dossier enables the club to act decisively in appointing new managers.

Pellegrino was identified as a manager in keeping with the "Southampton Way" for his track record of promoting young players and playing attacking, technically proficient football. From his time in Spain, Pellegrino is also well-versed operating as part of a wider executive structure like that at Southampton.

Any new manager "needs to be a fit to the philosophy of that organisation or that football club," Wilson explained. "When we appoint a manager here, we want that manager to be somebody that fits in with what we do here." This continuity of approach also ensures that existing intelligence gathered through the black-box will remain useful for the new boss.

All aspects of the club, from youth teams to the first team and sports science, are based at the Football Development and Support Centre at Staplewood. The integrated structure, Southampton believe, may help explain the club’s lack of injuries in recent years.

Staplewood is also the home of Southampton’s biggest pride: their academy, which has proved one of the country’s most productive over the last decade. All the club’s academy players are part of the black box. "We use data a lot to compare and contrast our players internally," Wilson said.

He believes that smart use of analytics and medical and sports science has also helped Southampton guard against the relative age effect. In 2015, 45 percent of those in Premier League academies were born from September to November.

Southampton have long had a competitive advantage in producing nimble and skilful players, like Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse. In some matches last season, Southampton even had a squad containing half academy players.

Gareth Bale's path to stardom began at Southampton.
Gareth Bale's path to stardom began at Southampton.Julian Finney/Getty Images

As they plan for the future, the club are also focused on how football is changing. Off the field, "The use of data has grown over the last one, two, three, four, five years—whatever number you want to put on it," Wilson explained. "I imagine that will grow again." On the field, he said, "we think we know where the game is going to be in five years' time. We've mapped out what Southampton looks like, bearing in mind what we think football will look like. Our medical and sports science personnel understand the types of players that we need to produce."

Southampton anticipate that the game will become even more physically arduous and so are nurturing academy players to outrun current Premier League footballers. The club also think that the game will become more tactically demanding. "The requirement for players' intelligence levels will be higher, and they will need to be able to deal with different systems—both your own system and what the opposition are doing—changing within games more than they did before."

And Southampton know that they need to continue evolving if they are to carry on outperforming their wages. "I don't think you ever get time to congratulate yourself," Wilson said. The club regularly send staff to observe other football sides, teams in other sports and even thriving organisations in completely different industries: Every visit provides an opportunity to learn and tweak Southampton’s own methods accordingly.

Corporations that take a longer-term view are more successful, as a recent McKinsey study showed; Southampton are showing how the same can be true in football.

So it is no wonder that other clubs are increasingly imitating their model. Wilson has observed ever more clubs attempting to mimic Southampton and build stability that can outlive any individual manager. This, perhaps, is the real significance of Southampton’s success: accelerating the death of the all-powerful manager in English football.

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