Southampton headed for relegation as well of talent dries up

(AP Photo/Tim Ireland, File)

By STEVE DOUGLAS

AP Sports Writer

They've been one of English soccer's under-the-radar success stories in recent years, managing top-eight finishes in the Premier League despite being dismantled by the country's richest clubs each summer.

Their ability to refresh and reinvent the team has been miraculous. They have had an envied academy system and scouting strategy. Until recently, they have played eye-catching soccer.

Now, though, Southampton is headed for relegation in a sad regression that appears to have crept up on the south-coast club.

The team is in third-to-last place and five points adrift of safety. It might need four victories in its last five games, after winning only once since Nov. 26.

"Clearly, we're up to the edge," Southampton manager Mark Hughes said Wednesday. "We need to understand that. I think we clearly do now."

For Hughes, the recently hired coach, it looks like being a season he would prefer to have wiped off his resume, likely finishing it partly responsible for the demotion of two clubs.

He was in charge of Stoke until January, when he was fired with the team in 18th place in the league - the final relegation spot. That's exactly the place Southampton is in now, with Hughes having lost all three of his league games in charge. Stoke is currently 19th and also heading down.

Hughes says he is getting to grips with his squad, realizing which of the "guys that I can trust" and "those who are not going to put their bodies on the line."

It might be too late for that. And it's nothing for the English game to celebrate.

Gareth Bale. Theo Walcott. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Luke Shaw. Those are just some of the players to come through Southampton's celebrated youth system and go on to become high-profile players at some of Europe's biggest clubs.

Under the stewardship of Les Reed, the academy has been able to keep bringing through talented youngsters while the recruitment team has long managed to replace the players the club sold for big money with cheaper ones from across Europe and beyond.

Just look at the players either brought through or bought, and then sold since 2014: defenders Virgil van Dijk, Toby Alderweireld, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne and Shaw; midfielders Adam Lallana, Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin; attackers Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle.

Southampton, in financial trouble as recently as 2009, cannot compete on the market with the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, so had to find other ways of surviving and thriving in the top flight.

Three months into the 2014-15 season, for example, it was second in the Premier League. Its last four finishing positions in the league have been eighth (2017), sixth (2016), seventh (2015) and eighth (2014).

That recruitment strategy, however, was always likely to catch up with them.

This is the season when Southampton's signings have been found wanting.

Center back Wesley Hoedt (Lazio), midfielder Mario Lemina (Juventus) and record signing Guido Carrillo (Monaco) have not worked out, while winger Sofiane Boufal - signed for a then-club record in August 2016 - is an obvious talent but infuriatingly inconsistent.

Financially, Southampton is a strong position - it might never have had so much cash - but the club has not been able to use the money wisely enough.

Southampton's healthy economic position is largely down to the sale in late-December of Virgil van Dijk for $99 million - a world record for a defender.

However, Southampton allowed him to go too late, the Dutchman's protracted move to Liverpool probably better off having been settled in the offseason rather than six months later. It proved to be an unwelcome distraction, with Van Dijk starting the season training alone after handing in a transfer request.

When he did return to the team in mid-September, Van Dijk clearly wasn't at his sharpest or best.

Only one team - last-place West Bromwich Albion - has fewer wins than Southampton's five from 33 games, and only four teams have fewer goals than Southampton's 33.

The fact that Charlie Austin is the top scorer with seven goals in all competitions, even though he has missed more than three months because of injury, is telling.

Argentine coach Mauricio Pellegrino was hired in June and it was hoped he would bring more entertainment than had been provided by his predecessor, Claude Puel, who led Southampton to eighth place in the league and the League Cup final. He couldn't, and was fired in in March after winning only one of his previous 17 matches - that coming against West Brom.

Hughes is unlikely to have enough time to turn it around.

On Thursday, Southampton visits Leicester, before what looks like benign matches against Bournemouth, Everton and Swansea. Its last match is at home to already-confirmed champion Man City.

"There are 15 points left and we need 12 of them," Hoedt said. "I don't know if it's realistic."

If it doesn't happen, Southampton will be back in the second division for the first time since 2012.

Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Updated April 18, 2018

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