Nathan Jones his own worst enemy with time running out at Southampton
It was a post-match interview that inevitably was widely shared, ridiculed and heightened the scrutiny on an already under-pressure Nathan Jones. “They had three crosses and scored three goals,” he said. “Three errors from us but that’s been symptomatic [of the season] … We do good work.
“Before I came here I won not far off 60% of my games when people just do their jobs. We were the highest scorers apart from Man City in Europe and I didn’t do much different work than I do now. I’m actually working with, in theory, better players. Results haven’t been good enough.”
Those words were not part of Jones’s monologue after Southampton’s 3-0 defeat at Brentford last Saturday but his take on his Stoke side after a 3-2 loss at home to Nottingham Forest in September 2019. In many ways, Jones is his own worst enemy. In an era when due diligence is carried out to the last minutiae, nobody at Saints – or beyond – should be surprised.
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A fiery, proud and quotable Welshman, he previously plastered his fingertips to prevent him biting his nails down to his skin. After Southampton’s surprise Carabao Cup win over Manchester City last month, he was taking aim at the Havant & Waterlooville manager, Paul Doswell, a Saints fan who questioned Jones in a local radio interview. “I don’t speak about levels I don’t know about,” came Jones’s retort.
He could not help himself last Saturday, again alluding to his success at Luton, claiming they ranked as one of the best teams in Europe when it came to xG last season, The impassioned defence of his methods, which he said he had compromised on principles, did not impress the Southampton hierarchy and further incensed supporters, many of whom were underwhelmed by his appointment as Ralph Hasenhüttl’s replacement in November.
It is difficult to avoid the sense that history is about to repeat itself. After that defeat by Forest, Jones limped on, winning a couple of games before being sacked a month later, his reputation damaged. Southampton have lost six of their seven Premier League matches under Jones and, unfortunately for him, a surprise triumph over Pep Guardiola and progress to the FA Cup fifth round carries minimal weight.
The problem is that previous achievements do nothing to mitigate current issues. Southampton host Wolves on Saturday and it would not be overegging it to suggest the atmosphere promises to be pernicious, particularly if they concede an early goal. The challenge for Southampton’s players is to shut out the noise and record a victory that could move them off the bottom.
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Jones has inadvertently alienated a fanbase against him and on Tuesday the four-strong Southampton leadership group who attended a fans’ forum – not livestreamed in part for fear of it being riddled with expletives – were bombarded with questions about if and when Jones would be dismissed as supporters made their anger plain. After 52 minutes of much to-ing and fro-ing on Jones’s position, the host politely asked whether any of the 100 season-ticket holders in the room had any burning questions about off-pitch issues. “Should Nathan Jones be sacked?” came the predictable response.
Rasmus Ankersen, the chief executive of Southampton’s owners, Sport Republic, acknowledged time was not on their side with the threat of relegation. Ankersen, who spent six years as co-director of football at Brentford, was behind Jones’s arrival at Southampton but was at pains to stress ego will be no obstacle to making brave calls. Ankersen alluded to Brentford sacking Marinus Dijkhuizen after nine matches in 2015 and changing managers at Göztepe, the Turkish second-division club Sport Republic acquired in August.
On the flip side, Ankersen stuck by Thomas Frank after he lost eight of his first 10 games and that loyalty has not turned out too badly. “We will back any manager we have until we don’t believe he can improve the team,” he told fans.
Although unhappy with results, Ankersen insisted there were more reference points to assess Jones’s work, citing the quality of training and the 49-year-old’s relationship with his players. There is also a desire to give Jones a chance to reap the benefit of almost £60m of January signings, including the Ghana winger Kamaldeen Sulemana and the forward Paul Onuachu, a 6ft 7in Nigeria forward who has played for the Danish club Midtjylland, where Ankersen was chairman. There was surprise last Friday when another January signing, the Croatia striker Mislav Orsic, lined up for Southampton’s B team on the eve of the first team’s fruitless trip to Brentford.
Southampton supporters are struggling to see too many positives, and it seems the directors are clinging to the last glimmers of light. One question on Tuesday evening centred on Jones fracturing the fanbase butit seems the manager has united supporters in a manner no one could have envisaged.
Jones deserves huge credit for transforming Luton from a struggling League Two side into one pushing for the Premier League, but a manager left hurt after failing to leave an imprint at Stoke is already running out of time to make his mark in the top flight.