Saints face further upheaval as ghost of Cortese lives on
Having enjoyed their most successful Premier League campaign to date, Southampton are having to deal with a firm reality check. With December approaching the Saints sat pretty in the second spot with only Chelsea their superiors. They held a seven point lead between themselves and their nearest rivals for fourth spot, however after back to back defeats to Manchester City and Arsenal, the momentum train has firmly hit the buffers. Now suddenly after five days of December, Southampton find themselves having been leapfrogged by City, with Manchester United, West Ham, Arsenal and Swansea breathing down their necks, with the further examination of a visit by United this Monday night. Not only are Ronald Koeman's men facing new challenges on the field however, but also behind the scenes.
Having not only emerged, but seemingly flourished from boardroom discontent in the past few season, Southampton will undergo a further reshuffle. This one however may present problems more difficult to resolve. When Nicola Cortese departed St Marys back in January after an 'irreconcilable rift' with Saints owner Katharina Liebherr it signalled change. Indeed, when Mauricio Pochettino followed suit in the summer, the fears were that Southampton and their more talented players would be picked off one by one. When indeed they were and with Koeman taking over from the outing Argentine, all the recent progress the south coast outfit had made in recent years could have unravelled. As it transpired these fears were unfounded.
With Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert moving to Liverpool, Luke Shaw to Man Utd and Calum Chambers to Arsenal, the role of recruiting to replace was key. That responbility fell at the feet of head of recruitment Paul Mitchell. After two high successful years at St Marys with the Saints however, Mitchell is departing for pastures new. The ghost of Cortese would seem to live on to haunt Southampton, as Mitchell will now join up with his former manager Pochettino at Spurs.
Mitchell, 33 - a former player forced to retire due to injury - joined Southampton's scouting team from MK Dons in 2012. After a tumultuous summer with huge departures, but with £100m plus sitting in the coffers, the former midfielder's task was to replace essentially the backbone of the team and to push on this season. Despite Southamptons riches that lie within their acedemy it was still a thankless task for Mitchell. Indeed many believed the Saints would drop down the table and even face a relegtion fight.
MItchell brought in Dusan Tadic from Koeman's former club FC Twente, but also Graziano Pelle from Dutch rivals Feyenoord. Pelle has gone on to be a revelation and despite not netting in the last four outings, has allotted six goals in 14 games. Moreover, Pelle has all the attributes of height, strength and aerial prowess to be a success in the English top flight. The Saints had not only improved their position in the league, they were better off for it and had a manager determined to prove his doubters wrong.
Perhaps more importantly, Paul Mitchell recruited Ryan Bertrand on loan from Chelsea and Toby Alderweireld from Atletico Madrid. Together with Nathaniel Clyne and the oft underrated Jose Fonte, the quartet - together with the retention of Morgan Schneiderlin - have formed a defensive unit that has kept seven clean sheets and conceded just 10 goals. Mitchell must take much of the credit for the Saints unexpected success this term. Now with his departure, where are Southampton left? Ronaldo Koeman has himself stated that he will be replaced, but finding a scout of the quality that Mitchell brought to the club will not be an overnight job.
For whoever does replace Mitchell, there will likely be no issue of price tag. The advantage the new man would have is his net could be spread wider and further with the club warchest sitting there to be utilised if the right individual is there. In the light of success this campaign that need may be even greater come this summer as the likes of new England member Clyne and Pelle will become hot properties. Southampton to date have dealt with changes in hierarchy at board level aswell, and at club level the appointment of Koeman has been a shrewd move with the Dutchman apparently shunned for the National team role in favour of Guus Hiddink who has suffered defeats in his return to manage Oranje.
Whether the loss of one of their more unsung heroes of the past few years will spell trouble off the pitch is yet to be known and perhaps won't be for a while yet, but with the Saints experiencing defeat twice in the space of four days which could become three in eight - with Chelsea to come during the Christmas schedule, Southampton have to steady the ship before the further transitions may begin.