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 By Alex Crook

Claude Puel shouldn't shoulder all of the blame for Southampton's season

Fall guy: A person who is falsely blamed for something that has gone wrong, according to the Oxford Dictionary.

Southampton manager Claude Puel could be forgiven for pointing out the definition to his bosses when he is summoned to an end-of-season review meeting, which will decide his future next week.

It is true Puel has made mistakes in his first season in the Premier League, but Southampton's failure to emulate their lofty finishing positions from the previous three years cannot solely be laid at the feet of the Frenchman.

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Yes, his insistence on squad rotation was a major factor in Southampton's disastrous Europa League campaign and his negative tactics have made their matches a real turnoff, especially at home, where fans have been starved of entertainment and goals.

It is also true that record buy Sofiane Boufal, handpicked by Puel as his marquee signing, has been a flop and that the former Lille and Nice coach has alienated several senior players.

But it was hard not to feel sympathy for Puel when he was roundly booed by his own supporters after taking off James Ward-Prowse to bring on Boufal in the closing stages of Wednesday's 0-0 draw at home to Manchester United.

A 0-0 draw against a team that despite their recent woes are still widely regarded as one of the best in Europe, let's not forget.

Not that the newly crowned vice chairman of football, Les Reed, will have been overly concerned for Puel as he looked down on the anarchy from the directors' box.

For all the time Puel is taking the flak, it is helping Reed and his fellow boardroom bigwigs hide their own failings and keeping them out of the spotlight.

It is hardly Puel's fault they sanctioned the sale of Graziano Pelle, Southampton's main striker for the past two seasons, last summer and did not provide his manager with a new front-man until Manolo Gabbiadini was signed from Napoli in January, by which time their European dream had already gone up in smoke.

Claude Puel joined Southampton last June.

Was Puel to blame for cashing in on Sadio Mane, Southampton's greatest attacking weapon, and trying to replace him on the cheap with Nathan Redmond?

Was it Puel's doing that Reed promised captain Jose Fonte would be allowed to leave only if a suitable replacement was found and then flogged the Euro 2016 winner to West Ham without recruiting?

He also has been a victim of Southampton's success under predecessor Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino before him, with Reed and chairman Ralph Krueger convincing the fans they should be Champions League contenders despite selling their best players.

That target is simply not achievable under the current business model and without significant investment in the playing squad.

In fact, it is fanciful in the extreme to think Southampton can go toe-to-toe over a 38-game season with the likes of Chelsea, the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool and north London giants Tottenham and Arsenal.

The raw truth is that since cementing themselves back in the top-flight after a difficult first season following promotion from the Championship in 2012, Southampton have punched above their weight.

During their first stint in the Premier League, when they relied too heavily on Matt Le Tissier's brilliance to save them from relegation before their luck finally ran out in 2005, those fans calling for Puel's head could only dream of seeing a top-10 finish and League Cup final defeat as underachieving.

Reed has rightly taken the credit for keeping Southampton upwardly mobile while managing the annual summer fire sale, so it is only correct he should shoulder a share of responsibility for what is perceived as taking a backward step.

In the end, it is likely Puel will be the ultimate fall guy and that Sunday's match at home to Stoke will be his defiant last stand, but sacking him should not take the heat completely off Reed and the board.

Alex Crook is ESPN FC's Southampton blogger. Follow him on Twitter @alex_crook


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