Michael Walker: Southampton’s Claude Puel a manager of real substance

Unfashionable and characterised as dull, the Frenchman has a CV to savour

Southampton’s Claude Puel (left) and his management team celebrate after his side  scores during the EFL Cup semi final, second leg match against Liverpool.  Photo:  Martin Rickett.

Southampton’s Claude Puel (left) and his management team celebrate after his side scores during the EFL Cup semi final, second leg match against Liverpool. Photo: Martin Rickett.

 

If he looks like a serious man, and he walks and talks like a serious man, then it might just be that a serious man is among us. If he looks like a man who gorges on pies, if he eats like a man who gorges on pies, then it might be that a pie-eating oaf is among us.

And so we reach the end of a week in which the Southampton manager Claude Puel may well have asked anxious questions about the Sutton United reserve team goalkeeper Wayne Shaw such as: “Is this really happening?”

And that was before Thursday night’s news of Claudio Ranieri.

Who could blame Puel? At a reported 23 stone – in a nation prone to obesity – Shaw appears to have at least one more belly than Jimmy “Five Bellies” Gardner, and squashes himself into that laugh-drink, laugh-drink Paul Gascoigne tradition of English football. Daft as a brush. Whose round is it? “I’ve got Soccer AM on the phone.’

Les Rosbifs – isn’t that the French term?

Meanwhile, Claude Puel is really dull. So they say. Maybe if Puel munched on some frogs’ legs during a game at St Mary’s or joined in with some of the other superficial nonsense masquerading as match-day culture, he too would be considered “a character”, as Shaw is to some. Maybe Puel too could be exploited by companies with cynical eyes, such as Sun Bets.

Teams of substance

So far Puel has resisted. Perhaps he’s perplexed, after all wasn’t Sutton-Arsenal supposed to be about the FA Cup? Instead he has focused his time at Southampton, and his career in management, in trying to create teams of substance who can do most of the talking for him.

Puel played for eight years under Arsene Wenger at Monaco before becoming one of his successors and has spoken of his admiration of Wenger’s ability to be “calm” five minutes after the final whistle. Calmness doesn’t chime with stunt merchants.

Puel’s restraint has helped form an impression that he has risen without trace, when in fact he won a league title – as Monaco manager – 17 years ago. When Lyon eliminated Real Madrid in the Champions League in 2010 and went on to the semi-final, Puel was the manager. When Lille finished second, then third in France in 2005 and 2006, Puel was in charge. Now Southampton are in their first major final for 14 years and Puel is manager. Maybe it’s all coincidence.

Southampton’s victory over Liverpool in the League Cup semi-final presumably provoked some gnashing of teeth among organisers and sponsors of the trophy and its clunky new “EFL” title. This could have been Klopp-Mourinho, hoopla, a show final. Think of the publicity.

No nickname

Puel doesn’t even have a nickname, not like Manuel “The Engineer” Pellegrini, who managed that Real team Puel overcame. Or the Special One.

But Puel had won at Anfield before – actual factual achievement. That was in the 2009-10 Champions League season as well. Lyon won 2-1 against Rafa Benitez’s team in the group stage and finished six points above them. Despite such details, Benitez has a far greater standing in football.

But the board at St Mary’s saw something in Puel and in his career. They saw enough to appoint him as successor to the rather more celebrated and glamorous Ronald Koeman. A club with a productive academy, Southampton noted Puel’s coaching of, among others, a young Thierry Henry at Monaco and 16 year-old Eden Hazard at Lille, and how Puel was credited with re-invigorating Hatem Ben Arfa at Nice.

That was last season: Nice came fourth in Ligue 1. Puel was there four seasons and Nice also came fourth in the first one. In between it was 17th and 11th.

Moaning Southampton fans – and there has been a lot of moaning about Puel – will recognise the up-and-down nature of his time at Nice. Southampton have lost at Hull and Crystal Palace but won at West Ham and drew at Manchester City.

Way to Wembley

On the way to Wembley they have beaten Palace, Sunderland, won at Arsenal and then at Liverpool – without conceding a goal.

They have beaten Inter Milan in Europe but not Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Jose Fonte has walked, but Manolo Gabbiadini has arrived. Virgil van Dijk was injured in the game before the Liverpool second leg, but the Saints still won.

So it has been in-and-out. But Puel has been at the club seven months and just as Monaco’s league title – or Lille’s rise – will not have been all about his management, nor will Southampton’s inconsistency this season have been down solely to Puel. The absences of Fonte and Van Dijk are significant factors themselves.

They will matter again as Southampton are about to face Zlatan Ibrahimovic – at Wembley in the League Cup final. Because this is what it’s about, substance, a sixth major final in 132 years, earned under a serious, quiet manager who will not be mistaken for a sideshow.

Ranieri helped put Leicester back on the map

Claude Puel has experienced the sack, so maybe he understood how Claudio Ranieri was feeling on Thursday.

But no manager can know truly the low Ranieri felt. He was not just Leicester City’s manager, he became an ambassador for the club and city. It sounds like exaggeration but it isn’t, Ranieri, like Richard III no less, helped put Leicester back on the map.

Ranieri had a winning smile, a warm handshake. In Peter Pizzeria, where he took his players after that first clean sheet, they were so proud. All part of the story.

But of greater importance - always - is team performance. It is a fundamental too often forgotten: everything stems from the pitch. Had Mahrez and Vardy not shone, neither would Ranieri.

This season the players have wilted. Why? There will be numerous contributory factors.

Yet sadly, so sadly in this case, it is the manager who goes.

A Wolves example Villa will be keen to avoid

It was possible to think about Wolverhampton Wanderers on Monday and how quickly we forget. As Aston Villa lost again, their 2-0 defeat at Newcastle a fifth in a row, thoughts of Wolves’ demise four years ago stirred. Like Villa now, Wolves had just been relegated from the Premier League and no-one thought they could go down again – until around this time.

Then, suddenly, or so it seemed, Wolves had 35 points from 32 games. There was a brief rally but Wolves were relegated with 51 points. Villa have 36 from 32 games, and only two points from the last 27. Steve Bruce, appointed in October to replace Roberto Di Matteo, can look forlorn. No wonder, Villa, like Leicester, have not won in 2017. They need to stem the losses beginning at home to Derby. Otherwise, Wolves, 2013.

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