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 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 Monday, two days after a 3-0 loss to Newcastle. 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. They 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, which has climbed to eighth in the Premier League 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 $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.
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 them eventually and Southampton is struggling now to preserve its six-year status as a Premier League 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, 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 in the same month.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80