As the man responsible for handing a 16-year-old Thierry Henry his first taste of senior football and a former child prodigy himself, Claude Puel’s appointment as Southampton’s manager on Thursday should give the club’s fans plenty of reasons for feeling relieved.
A little more than two weeks after Ronald Koeman’s surprise defection to Everton, the smile on the director of football Les Reed’s face told its own story after the Frenchman was confirmed to have signed a three-year contract at St Mary’s. The club’s Twitter account went one step further, posting a picture of Puel’s face with a halo emoji pasted over it, and a subsequent tweet featuring the hashtag #saintclaude.
At a club that has become used to selling its best players at the end of the season – more often than not to Liverpool in recent times – his arrival looks like a continuation of the smart managerial appointments that have taken Southampton from the wilderness of League One to one of the Premier League’s most consistent sides.
Although the loss of Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham in 2014 could have threatened the progress made since Nigel Adkins guided them to successive promotions, the arrival of Koeman ensured the process went as smoothly as possible.
Puel, having spent 20 seasons as a coach including at Monaco, Lille, Lyon and Nice, looks like the perfect fit. A tough-tackling defensive midfielder in his playing days who broke into first-team football as a teenager, he spent 17 years playing for Monaco, making nearly 500 appearances, and won two Ligue 1 titles, the second playing in the same team as Glenn Hoddle under Arsène Wenger.
After retiring in 1996, Puel became Monaco’s fitness coach and then manager of the club’s reserve team. Henry remembered in an interview in 2014 how the coach had helped him refine his shooting technique after he burst on to the scene. “The hardest thing for an attacking player? When he has time to think. So, with Claude Puel, who was then a fitness coach at Monaco, I went through session after session with dummies. I wasn’t born with a gift for goals,” said the former Arsenal striker.
Within three seasons, Puel had succeeded Jean Tigana as the Monaco manager and led them to the French title in his first full season, helping to bring through emerging talents such as Henry’s France team-mate David Trezeguet, and was named manager of the year. His contract was not renewed after they finished 11th the next season, however, and he moved to Lille the following year after taking a break from the game.
Lille were a club whose glory days of the 1940s and 1950s seemed a distant memory but Puel transformed them into genuine title contenders in his six years at the helm, finishing as runners-up in 2004-05. As a result he was snapped up by the Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas to replace Alain Perrin but failed to extend Lyon’s run of seven successive titles, although in 2010 he guided the side to their first Champions League semi-final, beating Real Madrid in the last 16.
Following another year out, Puel was tempted back into management by Nice and, after narrowly avoiding relegation in his first season, he oversaw a steady improvement that culminated in last season’s fourth-placed finish. A young team boosted by the maverick talents of Hatem Ben Arfa clearly made an impression on Southampton’s hierarchy and they made no secret of their desire to install him as Koeman’s replacement after Puel agreed to leave Nice, where Lucien Favre has replaced him.
“As the process eliminated a number of excellent candidates, Claude clearly came out on top of a very impressive shortlist,” said Reed. If he can be half as successful as their past three appointments, Southampton’s future looks assured.
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