PURGE; Noun: 1. an abrupt or violent removal of a group of people.
One is accustomed to bowling over in the face of more aggressive opponents in this country; England’s players are relentlessly pilloried and berated for a typically absent charisma and fortitude that so many other countries thrive off to their prosperity, but we allow failure to flourish anyway. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that Southampton have greeted the merciless raid on their young English talent with little other than a helpless sneer and a shrug of the shoulders. Que sera, sera.
As England’s top clubs purge on Southampton’s most talented personnel, I can’t help but ponder whether the fear of success is an underlying reason for so many of English football’s deficiencies, and whether high league positions and strong cup runs for some of the game’s lesser powers is more hindrance than help.
Whatever your inclination towards the game’s deeper-lying issues, one can’t deny how worrying Southampton’s contentment to allow some of the country’s more promising players to seek opportunities elsewhere is. Both in terms of the club’s long-term stability in the Barclays Premier League, and for the development of the players themselves, the ease with which Liverpool and Manchester United have been able to acquire their respective targets is a frightening representation of how money has begun to dominate the English game. That is a debate for a rainy day.
Naturally, Southampton can numb the disappointment of losing a number of their Academy products to bigger clubs by knocking on the door of the chief accountant. The sales of Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers means the club are almost £100m better off, notwithstanding the signings of Graziano Pellè and Dušan Tadić from the Eredivisie. If newspaper reports are anything to go by, the Saints are also likely to be without Jay Rodriguez and Morgan Schneiderlin for the opening day trip to Anfield. However, although Southampton have quenched the thirst of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United for top, home-grown talent, how the south-coast club approach the rebuilding process holds a great deal more importance than losing the aforementioned names. Players can, of course, always be replaced.
Consequently, I must warn Ronald Koeman that the market of his expertise and, so far, the one market he has delved into for reinforcements, is not the one I, as a fan, would be confident in browsing. Holland has, of course, provided English football with many a fine player throughout the past two decades; Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Robin van Persie and Ruud van Nistelrooy to name but a few. History suggests, however, that for every Luis Suárez there are five Ricky van Wolfswinkels. The Norwich striker is a chilling reminder of how big the gap is between the Eredivisie and the Premier League.
Amidst the relevant turmoil of Southampton’s summer, Koeman has already opened his chequebook to bring in two players from the Dutch top flight. Pellè and Tadić are the first in what is sure to be a long line of replacements for the departed Saints, but they arrive on the south coast without Premier League experience on their résumé. Virgil van Dijk, a Dutchman plying his trade with Celtic, is also expected to sign shortly.
Manoeuvring a pre-season with a great deal of money in your back pocket is a trick not all managers have mastered, or even experienced before. Brendan Rodgers has shown signs of misdirection this summer as he attempts to strengthen a thin squad with the money accrued from the sale of star man Suárez, as well as the millions Liverpool’s owners have awarded him following a hugely successful previous campaign. The consequence of his purchases will come clear in due course. Tottenham Hotspur are still recovering from a disastrous transfer window last summer, in which they binged on European talents like Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli and Roberto Soldado, who all contributed more to the sacking of André Villas-Boas than to any progress Spurs made on the pitch, which was minimal. Ironically, ex-Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino is charged with resurrecting Tottenham and spending whatever money Daniel Levy affords him with frugality. Swansea duo Michel Vorm and Ben Davies are the only arrivals so far.
It is clear which one of Koeman, Rodgers and Pochettino is the odd one out already. The latter two have spent the majority of their money on players from the Premier League, with Lazar Marković and Emre Can the only exceptions in the Liverpool ranks. Koeman must be sensible. Having managed in Holland, Portugal and Spain in his 14-year career to date, it must be very tempting to gorge on European talent, but, unless you have the reputation of a Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester City to lure the world’s very best players to England, filling your squad with players who have never seen the proverbial sodden evening in Stoke is a gamble that seldom pays dividends.
Southampton and football fans in general would be forgiven for feeling perturbed by this summer’s events. Not only have the club sacrificed their chances of progression on the pitch by surrendering their best players, but they have showed a stunning declaration of defeat to superior powers. The football hierarchy is frighteningly clear, and if clubs of Southampton’s stature can only wilt under the pressure the big clubs put them under by waving ludicrous sums of money in their face, what is in it for them?