Sport Republic have put their faith in Martin – his appointment has to work for Southampton
It goes against the data-laden perception of Sport Republic that its first two permanent managerial hires have come from Luton Town and Swansea City.
Co-founder Rasmus Ankersen was the one who headhunted Nathan Jones, speaking to him weeks before his official appointment, while Ruben Selles, who was in situ at the club when appointed in February, was a short-term fix decided on by chief executive Martin Semmens.
But with Ankersen back leading the managerial search as Southampton attempt to reset quickly and effectively in time for a Championship season that starts in less than 45 days, the window to bring about transformative change is marginal. Plainly, preparations could not wait until Southampton’s final league game against Liverpool or when Selles, who was none the wiser over his own future until five days earlier, intended to hold a performance review three days after.
Russell Martin has been settled on as the manager or head coach — given he will be working within set parameters under the incoming director of football Jason Wilcox — who can remodel and, as is the buzzword of Southampton majority owner Sport Republic, “align” the football operations.
Although it took the best part of a month for Martin’s move to be announced, preparations for his arrival had been in the works throughout, indicating that finalising the agreement was a mere formality.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for Selles. He bet on himself in taking the job in the first place, tearing up his contract as a coach that provided greater security to take the managerial role until June 30. He was never Sport Republic’s guy; they wanted Jesse Marsch when Jones was sacked in January after 95 days in charge. It was only when the American had reservations that they agreed with Semmens and opted for Selles.
Selles’ future was always unclear (Photo: LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images)
Selles was having to field questions in his remaining press conferences — unrelated to what was left of the season given it had been rendered meaningless — about other managers taking his job when he was yet to be told himself. The Spaniard went on vacation a week after the season finished and received interest from his homeland as well as the Championship. On the same day Martin was appointed as Southampton manager, Selles was close to finalising an agreement to join League One relegated side, Reading.
Sport Republic intends to transition to a possession-based style, easing away from one predicated on high-pressing systems and the Red Bull osmosis that was introduced by Ralph Hasenhuttl and fleetingly maintained by Selles.
A heavy ball-retention approach is thought to be conducive in the relentless, all-consuming Championship 46-game season and, if modelled correctly — as Burnley have demonstrated under a young, talented coach in Vincent Kompany — it can produce instant, vindicating rewards.
Indeed, it was only Burnley who fractionally registered a higher average possession rate (64 per cent) than Martin’s Swansea (63.4 per cent) and were also the only side to have made more progressive passes.
Martin’s overarching principles are clear, and for a club that has failed to show joined-up thinking throughout the last season, such clarity in style hopefully elicits far greater substance.
At 37, Martin comes from the age of new coaches: young, tactically sophisticated and steadfast in their beliefs. The former Norwich City right-back retired less than four years ago at MK Dons, where he took on his first managerial job which lasted 18 months before joining Swansea.
Finishing 13th in his one full season, only Manchester City and Barcelona had a higher average possession percentage in Europe than Martin’s MK Dons. “If it doesn’t work and I get sacked, at least I get sacked doing something I believe in — I don’t get sacked regretting that I have bowed on my principles,” Martin told The Guardian in 2021.
Martin has not veered from his passing principles at MK Dons or Swansea (Photo: Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
A distinctive philosophy could, if applied correctly, fast-track the process of realigning the several different departments that grew disillusioned with the club’s lack of strategy.
Martin will not deviate from his core principles. Emboldened by the fact Wilcox will join from Man City, the most possession-heavy side English football has seen and will be his first point of contact, Southampton will double down on their direction of travel.
Scepticism from supporters is as inevitable as it is understandable. Credit in the bank of Sport Republic has maxed out. Ankersen’s track record in the recruitment of managers and players suggests little faith in getting the next big decision right. But what Martin claims as his coaching identity is far more distinguishable and aesthetically pleasing than Jones.
Granted, Martin’s perpetual belief in playing out from the back and working the ball through the thirds warrants accusations of possession overkill at times. Swansea, however, neared the top of several attacking metrics (expected goals, shots on target, passes into the final third) and built on Martin’s defined framework.
Swansea were prone to fluctuations in form (something par for the course for Hasenhuttl’s Southampton), but their general style was unyielded. In the end, they timed their play-off chase too late, missing out by three points despite seven wins in a nine-game unbeaten run. Had they not endured a torrid, toiling run of three wins in 21 matches prior, they would have scaled loftier heights.
The biggest challenge Martin faces is whether he can marry the pressure of results with implementing his refined style fully. It requires full buy-in and patience from supporters and players, but the pressure to win and the target of promotion risks losing the minutiae needed to wholly execute Martin’s philosophy.
Martin continually preaches “confidence and courage” but his interpretation of those traits is centred on players’ decision-making, as opposed to the blood and guts of English football. He dares opposition teams to press — or “antagonising”, as he describes it — wanting to coax players out of position before exploiting the space vacated.
It demands “pausa” and bravery for players to purposely delay their next action. Before Swansea’s 4-0 demolition of rivals Cardiff City in April 2022 — generally considered Martin’s coaching zenith so far — he challenged Kyle Naughton, a full-back repackaged as a sweeper in the middle of a back three, to “see how long he could stay on the ball before he could antagonise someone”.
Martin’s insistence on taking the temperature out of games can tend to lead to passages of impasse. Supporters will quickly have to accept those subtle, patient elements of Martin.
Sport Republic has begun planning for the Championship early. Highlighted in Darren Mowbray joining from Aberdeen as the club’s new head of recruitment and other hires in key positions that will be rubber-stamped in the coming weeks, Southampton are starting from scratch following botched attempts to reset under Hasenhuttl and Jones.
In some ways, it is ironic Martin leaves one club in disquiet over their ownership group to join another. Contrary to reports, he never did leave for the United States at the end of May to hold face-to-face talks with Swansea’s owners as a move to Southampton became inevitable.
Martin’s pretty patterns need to carry substance otherwise the inherent risks Ankersen seems inclined to take will leave Southampton directionless and picking up the pieces of another failed experiment. Sport Republic must hope it has got this appointment right — more than any other.
(Photo: Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)