Saints submit to football's hierarchy
It might have been a photo of any Premier League training ground on any summer morning. A pitch, bathed in sunshine, empty apart from a dozen cones and as many balls: just a typical scene from a typical day in preseason.
When Ronald Koeman, Southampton's new manager, tweeted the picture, though, it immediately assumed a different meaning. Given the context, perhaps that was inevitable.
After all, Calum Chambers was on the verge of joining Arsenal, the fifth player to leave St Mary's this summer, after the sales of Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert to Liverpool and the departure of Luke Shaw to Manchester United. It would soon emerge that two more -- Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez -- are about to follow.
This was not just an image of what every training ground at every club looks like just before 10 a.m., while the players are finishing their breakfast and lacing their boots. It was -- or at least it seemed to be -- the perfect snapshot of Southampton's summer. This was all that is left after the exodus: a few cones, a few balls, no players.
The jokes came thick and fast -- Koeman's full squad ready for training; Koeman's lineup for the opening Premier League game against Liverpool revealed, that sort of thing -- and so did the conspiracy theories: this was a message from the Dutchman, an attack on the board that was selling the rug from beneath his feet.
The gallows humour and the soap opera plotlines, though, should not be allowed to deflect from the overriding emotion that arises when contemplating what has happened to Southampton: a deep, troubling sadness.
This is a club that has, over the course of the last five years, become something of a darling for English football. They won back-to-back promotions to get into the Premier League. They established themselves there with the help of a squad comprised in no small part of academy graduates.
They appointed Mauricio Pochettino as manager and played a high-octane, ultra-modern brand of football. They were rewarded with an eighth-place finish; their players were rewarded with international recognition. Lay aside club loyalty and Southampton were, more or less, what all clubs of moderate means should aspire to be.
Then, in the course of six weeks, they have had their heart ripped out. It is normal to try to explain such things through human agency. It is soothing to think there is someone to blame, someone who might have stopped it happening if only they had behaved differently. Does owner Katharina Liebherr want her money back? Is Ralph Krueger, the chairman, insufficiently tough in negotiations?
These do not hold water. There has been no fire sale at St Mary's. Liebherr and Krueger cannot be accused of being exploited by the Premier League's big beasts. They have received premium fees for every single one of their players. They have banked 93 million pounds in total from the sale of the five who have gone; that could rise as high as 130 million pounds, depending on how much Tottenham lavish on Schneiderlin and Rodriguez. Southampton are not in a position to refuse that sort of money.
No, what has happened on the south coast is different. In a sense, it is simpler. It is not one person's fault. There are no fingers to be pointed, no aspersions to be cast. It is a stark, brutal assertion of football's natural order.
Atletico Madrid won the Spanish title last season, and came within a minute or so of lifting the Champions League. Yet less than two months later, they have already seen David Villa, Thibaut Courtois and -- most painfully -- Filipe Luis and Diego Costa leave.
Not long ago, Borussia Dortmund won two league titles in a row, and reached a Champions League final. Shinji Kagawa, Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski have all gone. Mats Hummels, Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan will follow, eventually.
Dortmund and Atletico were competing at a much higher level than Southampton, of course, but it is apposite to consider the three clubs together, because all have suffered from the same phenomenon. These are the clubs that have sailed too close to the sun, who have suffered for threatening the established order, whose glint has caught the magpie eyes.
Summer transfer window roundup
- Premier League: Team-by-team ins and outs
- Transfer Centre: All the done deals
- Marcotti: Mind-boggling transfers
- Delaney: What did we learn on deadline day?
- Horncastle: European transfer grades
- Smith: Transfers more important than the game?
- Macintosh: We worship goals, not balance sheets
Football has always had a hierarchy, of course, a pecking order. There have always been big clubs with lots of money and smaller clubs with less. The former raid the latter; it is how things have always been.
What is troubling, though, is how the boundaries have shifted. Southampton will be told that their players wanted Champions League football, or the chance to win trophies. It is an age-old battle for smaller sides to persuade their stars that they can achieve those aims without moving, if only they have a little patience.
But the examples of Atletico and Dortmund suggest that, in reality, even that would not be enough. Luis and Costa had all that in Madrid, and so did Kagawa, Gotze and Lewandowski. They had all won titles. They had seen that they could be competitive in the Champions League. They all still left.
Why should you care? Well, even if you do not support any of those three clubs, it should trouble you because it suggests that whatever your side is doing, it is ultimately futile. You may, like Atletico or Dortmund, have some fleeting taste of glory. It will not last. Your insurrection will be quashed. Money -- and more importantly, power -- will tell.
Like Southampton, you may do everything right. You may invest millions in your academy and win the praise and admiration of outside observers for the way you go about your business. Eventually, though, all that work will be done for someone else's benefit. The giants will come and they will take your jewels, and you will have to start all over again. You may have 100 million pounds to do it, which will help, but you will also be seen as a selling club, which won't.
And if you support one of the big beasts, one of the dozen or so teams who can pick the bones of everyone else? Well, maybe you should delight in your team's strength.
True, things might get a little repetitive. True, it suggests that your scouts aren't up to much -- simply buying in a ready-made team from elsewhere, in bulk, as Liverpool and Chelsea have done in one summer, and Bayern Munich seem to be doing over three, is awfully lazy -- and that your youth system is a bit of a waste of money (why raise our own players when Southampton can do it for us?) but that does not matter, does it, when there are trophies to be won and glamour to be sampled?
Maybe, though, it would be wise to remember that football does not just have a hierarchy: it also has a sense of irony. Only two clubs -- as ESPN FC's Miguel Delaney wrote last week -- sit at the very apex of the pyramid: Real Madrid and Barcelona. Even Bayern, as Toni Kroos proved, sometimes have to succumb.
But then Real and Barcelona, for all their spending, are not invincible. There is always another challenger, another Atletico, another Dortmund ready to rise up. Perhaps it would be a better idea trying to learn their wisdom, rather than buying their submission.