Nathan Jones in Southampton: Insights into the Welshman’s recruitment and sacking
The writing was on the wall for Nathan Jones.
Southampton had lost 2-1 at home to Wolves after leading one goal and playing with an extra man for over an hour.
For the first time since 1998, there were five home defeats in a row at home. At the final whistle, as boos rang out around St Mary’s and a supporter was kicked out for trying to give him a P45, Jones went straight down the tunnel. The mood afterwards was “low to say the least,” according to sources close to the dressing room, who, like everyone else in this article, spoke on condition of anonymity to protect relationships.
The decision to sack Jones was confirmed on Sunday morning, ending the sixth-shortest managerial tenure in Premier League history. CEO Martin Semmens informed the players via SMS. Significantly, Southampton did not thank Jones for his efforts in a 51-word statement confirming his departure.
#SaintsFC has parted ways with Men’s First Team manager Nathan Jones.
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) February 12, 2023
Southampton face the reality of a third permanent manager in one season and senior club members began scouting for possible replacements for Jones in the run-up to Wolves.
Southampton retain a long-standing interest in former Leeds United boss Jesse Marsch, who is a candidate. The American has not left England since leaving Elland Road last week.
With Southampton bottom of the Premier League and in serious danger of relegation, the most relevant question is why. Why did Sport Republic appoint Jones? Why a manager who failed at Stoke City and was accused of being overwhelmed? This article outlines…
- Initial optimism in Jones came from good people skills
- Concerns about the analytical approach used to hire Jones
- Confusion about how the new coaching structure would work
- £3m compensation to Luton and no survival bonus
- Worry about a new manager creating even more confusion
Southampton fans aren’t hiding their feelings towards Nathan Jones… pic.twitter.com/SPPLqPmRuG
— The Athletic | Football (@TheAthleticFC) February 11, 2023
Rasmus Ankersen, co-founder of Sport Republic and the key person responsible for hiring and firing managers, explained to the athlete in November that the “metrics” indicated that Jones could retain Ralph Hasenhuttl’s best strengths while building a more stable framework. Ankersen has long been a fan of Jones. He first became aware of his work at Brentford and had held talks with Jones at Southampton six weeks before his appointment. Ankersen has the final word on all critical decisions and was observed during training last week.
In discussions, Southampton board found Jones ready to address his mistakes at Stoke, where he was sacked after nine months in office. Ankersen and Semmens have previously discussed the appeal of working with managers who have failed in the past due to their ability to learn from mistakes and in turn improve as coaches. Multiple sources said the athlete of Jones’ “burning desire” to prove people wrong.
Southampton paid Luton Town £3m (€3.62m) to get Jones out of his contract and the Welshman had no Premier League survival bonus in his contract at Southampton.
94 days. pic.twitter.com/ErAIF7LRJU
— Opta Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) February 12, 2023
Initially, Jones’ arrival in the squad was met with great optimism. They were in a much happier place than under Hasenhüttl, who ended up having strained relationships with a significant number of players. The more experienced pros felt that Jones brightened the place as his people skills led to an improvement in training standards. Jones made it clear that he intended to rely on the brighter minds, given how youthful the squad was in general. The players felt respected and valued. Several players’ agents spoke of their fondness for Jones.
The Welshman was keen to get to know his players personally. The team meals during the World Cup camp in Southampton, Spain, showed a sympathetic side of his management and his enthusiasm lifted the spirits of some younger players who were struggling with confidence issues. Jones’ arrival was a fresh start for many.
Jones’ closest associates, Chris Cohen and Alan Sheehan, who have also left, have been instrumental in the desire to drive a cultural reboot on the training ground and spark a keen interest in players off the field. It was no longer the case that a senior management team only cared about a player coming to training and then leaving. From the board’s perspective, Jones’ appointment should take the club to the next level and strengthen a culture that had frayed under Hasenhüttl.
Even at this point, the descent was focused on the heads. This was factored into contract negotiations before and during Jones’ tenure, as some players preferred to assess the country’s position at the end of the season.
Jones began to have doubts after his second Premier League game, a 3-1 home defeat by Brighton & Hove Albion on Boxing Day. Despite having to establish his principles and define a playing style throughout the World Cup, Jones changed formations five times in 90 minutes. This confirmed the belief that Jones’ flexibility led to a lack of direction within the club, as coaches below the first-team were unsure about the path to the senior side. It seemed, as Ankersen would have it, that there was little agreement between the Academy and Jones.
Close observers were skeptical of Jones’ training sessions, leading analysts to largely focus on one-on-one situations in games as opposed to the broader tactical structure. The feeling quickly arose that his methods were not well received in the higher leagues. There was also confusion over the coaching dynamic between Jones and the existing coaching staff – namely Ruben Selles – who were unsure how it would work. Indeed, sources expressed regret over Hasenhuttl’s blind spots and implied that if he had Jones’ man-management skills and Jones had Hasenhuttl’s coaching expertise, the ideal manager would be the ideal manager.
The changes in the formation, compounded by the roster’s imbalanced age, led to greater confusion among the players. Sources close to the squad questioned the validity of Sport Republic’s metrics on Jones’ appointment, denying there was little difference between the Championship and the Premier League. The reliance on data behind Jones’ hiring has been questioned.
In the background, meanwhile, Jones’ press conference antics raged among supporters and staff. Bold comments like his pink reminder of how free his Luton Town side were playing were controversial internally.
For example, Jones’ claim that “statistically in Europe, not many were better than me in terms of aggression, goal conceded, defense in the penalty area and xG (expected goals)” after the Brentford game was scolded, most recently with Luton of the season and recorded the eighth highest xG in the championship. On the other hand, there was an acceptance that Jones was his authentic self to the end, and the hierarchy should have recognized the potential danger upon his appointment.
Southampton’s 1-0 home defeat by Nottingham Forest at the turn of the year was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many fans. Against the worst away team in the league, Southampton hopped 75 long balls forward and showed little else. In the days that followed, the mood at the club deteriorated significantly.
After each game, Jones and Ankersen held a post-game debriefing. Ankersen, a supporter of Jones, made it known that he wanted to see rapid improvements after Forest.
Of course, every coach has their own strengths and weaknesses, and from Jones’ point of view there was friction with what he was trying to implement. Many believed he was working on playing his preferred 3-5-2 form. Ultimately, he played the system in his last game in charge against Wolves, making good on his promise after Brentford that he would not compromise again.
Curiously, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was brought on as a third centre-back, while Duje Caleta-Car and Armel Bella-Kotchap – defenders at international level – have been left out of the squad altogether. January signing Mislav Orsic was in the same boat after being part of the matchday group at St Mary’s. It served as a sign of growing animosity between Jones and a handful of players. Some thought they fell out of favor for not being hard enough defensively, in Jones’ opinion.
To mitigate this, the feeling that Jones was paralyzed by inexperience was inescapable. Southampton relayed a message to staff in January, telling them every decision made during the month was centered on the short-term goal of survival. It was an acute deviation from their long-term strategy.
This was seen as necessary as multiple sources felt the lack of senior leadership was undermining Jones. “He’s a decent coach but he’s inherited a largely inexperienced squad and he’s inexperienced himself,” said a source close to the dressing room who knows Jones. “What did people expect? I think the players play for him – they like him, but the confidence in the squad has been waning for a long time. How many Premier League games has Ralph won in 2022?”
The immediate feeling after Southampton’s 3-0 defeat at Brentford was that Jones would be given one last chance against Wolves to turn things around.
On Monday morning, two days after Brentford, doubts about Jones’ position were growing. As tensions rose at Staplewood over the weekend, faith in Jones continued to wane from the squad.
Still, his post-game claims angered senior figures, including Ankersen, and Southampton checked his comments. Targeting supporters, players and staff, Jones said: “There are certain people in the village and players in the building that we have to work with”. Jones tells the athlete later in the week that he didn’t recall making that comment. The discord between supporters and Jones was broken beyond repair after just three months.
Another management upheaval will mean a new manager and even more new ideas, risking further confusion for players already lacking in confidence.
Jones’ failure at Southampton was partly self-inflicted but was also seen as an example of the broader downward trends within a club that seemed doomed that season.
(Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
https://theathletic.com/4158162/2023/02/12/nathan-jones-southampton-sacked/ Nathan Jones in Southampton: Insights into the Welshman’s recruitment and sacking