So Mark(y Marky) Hughes has signed a three-year contract with Saints, after their unexpected battle for survival – unexpected in that Saints found themselves in it and that they finally provided some kind of fight. The sheer relief on the south coast has led many to exaggerate Hughes’s achievements, a fairly unremarkable 8 points from 8 games, and that relief also explains why there was no competitive process for hiring a new manager.
It is difficult to imagine it would have happened last summer after Claude Puel’s spell, when the club agonised over Puel’s position, seemingly unsure if the team’s performance required a new man. With things rather more critical this summer, Hughes has been rewarded for galvanising a club which seemed doomed to the abyss. On the whole, the club’s fans have swiftly warmed to him, despite his cantankerous demeanour, and a glimmer of hope has been restored. That hope is not unfounded. Although I struggle to gush about Hughes as Robbie Savage does, there are a number of important contributions Hughes can make to Saints in the coming months.
This is a club that has, over the last two years, found itself continually distracted by concerns off the pitch, whether that be the change in ownership last summer or an increased focus on commercial growth (as Ralph Krueger continually reminds us). There has been a suspicion, rightly or otherwise, that the previous two managers were not forceful enough in pushing back against these forces at board level. The lack of urgency in both the transfer market, particularly this January, and in the replacement of Puel last summer hampered the club’s progression. Unlike his predecessors, Hughes, being the abrasive character he is, will demand some attention is paid to matters on the pitch, sure to use last season’s near-calamity to support his case. It is unlikely to mean significant investment on the pitch, beyond what remains of the van Dijk money –Krueger’s recent interview suggests Saints will stick to the ‘sell to invest’ model – but it should mean priorities are reassessed.
In this endeavour, Hughes must be supported to develop and harden the mental strength of a team that has often been accused of being ‘too nice’ and has bowed out of physical battles with lesser teams. This has never been a problem for Hughes’s teams of the past and he has already improved the team’s organisation, predominantly through a change in shape, and unleashed the team’s few instinctive on-field combatants, such as Oriol Romeu. Although this hardened, physical football is unlikely to yield Barcelona-esque football, we should see a team that is capable of playing effective, organised, counter-attacking football and fewer drab draws. From a recruitment perspective, this is a team that is crying out for experience and leadership qualities, and Hughes will need support to move on those that don’t ‘buy in’, as might be suspected of Sofiane Boufal and Mario Lemina (or his agent). In particular, a new centre back seems essential, after young centre backs Stephens and Hoedt were often left exposed last season, both in terms of their decision-making and in aerial battles. And it is clear that some of the attacking frailties, which Guido Carrillo was mistakenly bought to address, still exist. Addressing those is perhaps more complex and there is no doubt that the brush with relegation will make recruitment more challenging.
However, there are areas where this relationship must work the other way; the board must provide some counterbalance to Hughes, to prevent him overreaching the role of a modern coach and avoid a repeat of the problems he experienced in the latter part of his spell at Stoke. The club must maintain faith in its recruitment structures, rather than allowing the manager to dictate its direction. Yes, this has gone awry over the last couple of years but remains the best way of implementing some kind of overarching strategy. Carrillo is a very present illustration of how badly manager-led recruitment can go wrong and is one of many that need to be moved on to create spending money and open ‘pathways’.
In pursuit of European football, the squad has become bloated with senior players of limited quality, while young players have gone on unproductive loans or found themselves marooned in the under 23s. This balance needs to change. For one, it would offer the potential to improve the quality of the squad, through growth and development. But it would also allow the board to continue pursuing profits from player sales – which may be resented by many fans but is a reality of the current model. It may also relieve the burden of a wage bill which looked particularly daunting as Saints wrestled with the threat of relegation and the loss of Premier League income. Although it is unlikely that coaching and developing youngsters will ever be Hughes’s coaching strength, and this is one issue which makes the ‘fit’ between manager and club questionable, the youth issue is indicative of the way that this appointment demands collaboration and compromise.
It would be more than a stretch to call Hughes naturally compatible with the club’s structures, alleged priorities and principles. There are a number of challenging tensions to resolve with a manager who is not known for his flexibility. In this context, it seems unlikely that this relationship will run its course. For the immediate recruitment issues raised, time is of the essence…