Majority stakeholder Sport Republic has an office at Southampton’s training ground, Staplewood.
Despite being relegated from the Premier League last season, the club remain the jewel in its multi-club model, and getting Southampton’s affairs in order is imperative to the broader operation. The owner has two other clubs — Turkish second-tier side Goztepe, purchased in August 2022, and Ligue 2 outfit Valenciennes, acquired in July this year.
Henrik Kraft is a regular at Staplewood but Rasmus Ankersen, his Sport Republic co-founder, is a less frequent visitor, instead choosing to float between the three clubs as an overarching presence.
This is Kraft and Ankersen’s first season running three teams and even in its early stages, they have suffered turbulence. Southampton are on a run of four successive league defeats, plummeting to 15th in the Championship, Goztepe find themselves ninth despite promotion ambitions and Valenciennes are in the relegation zone.
Lead investor Dragan Solak, a Serbian telecoms billionaire, took out a £110million ($133.4m by today’s rates) loan to buy Southampton in December 2021. The loan was from Luxembourg-registered company Summer Invest Sarl, which is owned by Solak and is a majority shareholder in his telecom company United Group. This was unrelated to Southampton’s cash flow and the loan was not to be repaid out of club accounts.
Since then, however, Solak has regularly provided Southampton with cash injections, covering “general running costs” and essentially footing the bill for Sport Republic’s overhaul in infrastructure. In April, Solak sunk in a further £15m, taking his additional investment to £63m over seven months.
Seeing little bang for his buck, Solak intended to be more proactive in the decision-making this season after his first full year of owning the club ended in relegation and fallout off the pitch. As The Athletic reported in May, there had been a feeling from observers close to Solak and the United Group that the club had been “burning cash” in their operational costs, most notably in player and managerial recruitment. Solak, however, remains committed and he would continue to invest if financial fair play (FFP) regulations allowed.
When Solak is in England, he visits Staplewood and is an interesting, gutsy character who preaches a family-type atmosphere, even if does not always feel that way.
At the end of a summer when they raised £160m by selling 18 players and signed a further eight at an initial cost of £19m, Southampton’s intended fresh slate was characterised by the appointment of manager Russell Martin (top photo, middle). The 37-year-old has a distinctive, sometimes divisive, playing style, but after eight games, teething issues have left them closer to the foot of the Championship than the top.
Here The Athletic explains what is happening on the south coast — including the tricky summer transfer business, managing FFP, the arrival of several key figures and where Southampton go from here.
Ankersen, with his background in football analytics at Midtjylland as chairman and then Brentford as co-director of football, has come under the microscope at Southampton. Kraft, in charge of board governance and the business side of the multi-club model, looks to Ankersen on footballing matters. The big decisions so far, including the hiring of Nathan Jones and last season’s youthful recruitment drive, have not succeeded.
Ankersen decided on Jason Wilcox, Manchester City’s academy director, as the first major figure to stamp Southampton’s change in direction. Wilcox was appointed director of football in January and was tasked with leading a rejuvenated playing template and creating a revamped culture that aligned all departments. New staff members, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships like others in this article, say they had walked into an environment that they felt was cold and suffering from a lack of communication across each branch of the club.
Wilcox wanted to introduce a football-based model similar to Manchester City, with a possession-heavy style. The 52-year-old has made a good early impression on staff, who view him as a serious, conscientious hard worker trying to implement the desired culture. Wilcox liaises with agents, players and staff members, but Ankersen has helped with negotiating player exits, routinely signing off on agreements and dealing with the financial side.
Ankersen is a headstrong, sometimes over-confident individual whose sweeping changes have made Southampton almost unrecognisable from how he found it — but he has, however, trusted Wilcox in the appointment of Martin as manager.
Wilcox regarded Martin and Enzo Maresca, who would later take the reins at Leicester City, as the outstanding candidates who chimed with his playing vision. As a manager, Martin has never finished higher than 10th in a table, but his undeviatingly possession-heavy principles at MK Dons or Swansea City made him an attractive option.
However, he was entering an environment still in flux. Sport Republic had also appointed a new chief executive, Phil Parsons, Andy Goldie as academy director and chief commercial officer Charlie Boss. Sport Republic was also in its first summer of the centralised scouting system, meaning all scouts would report back to the multi-club model, as opposed to Southampton, specifically.
New people meant new ideas and ways of working, but the window for acclimatisation was tight, especially with the first team targeting immediate promotion.
The early signs were positive. Southampton were unbeaten in their first four matches, winning three against Sheffield Wednesday, Plymouth Argyle and Queens Park Rangers. This was impressive, considering the turnover in the playing squad.
Over the summer, a whole matchday squad’s worth of players departed — either on loan or permanently — including seven of the 15 signings made last summer and in January. Wasted money has been a sore point for some staff since Southampton, as is often the case following relegation, made club-wide cuts and redundancies.
Despite the pressing need for promotion, there remained an expectation Martin’s style would take time for the players to fully grasp. In the summer, it was put to The Athletic by a senior source that only a handful of players from the previous squad were suited to the manager’s style of play. Two of those players have already left, one being Tino Livramento.
There is an acknowledgement internally Southampton should have replaced outgoings with more players earlier, knowing key figures, such as Romeo Lavia and James Ward-Prowse, would inevitably leave. Ryan Fraser, Mason Holgate, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Flynn Downes and Ross Stewart were all brought in towards the end of the window and Martin’s backroom team are still getting them up to speed.
Elsewhere, free agent signing Ryan Manning did not have a full pre-season, which left 19-year-old Shea Charles starting his first season of senior football as the only player recruited early and fit.
Martin is largely well-liked by players, with his confident, warmer man-management style more favourable than Jones or Ralph Hasenhuttl. He has talked, publicly and privately, about players having “scar tissue” from previous failures and inside Staplewood, that sentiment is shared. The loss of form has coincided with the injury to captain Jack Stephens, whom Martin sees as his core leader.
Last season’s disastrous Premier League campaign has notably damaged members of the dressing room. As a consequence, adjusting to a different approach has proven difficult for some players — it is partly why, following their first setback against Sunderland in a heavy 5-0 defeat, the squad is yet to bounce back.
A handful of players did not know they were staying until deadline day. Some of them found themselves in the starting line-up at Sunderland only a day later. That is not necessarily Martin’s fault but does demonstrate how the uncertainty off the field has created an impact on it. Players found it hard to get their heads around not leaving. This has affected the type of stability and rhythm paramount to Martin’s choreographed tactics.
Martin and Wilcox had to be flexible in their targets. Southampton could not simply reinvest from the £160m they impressively raised through player sales due to the structure of those deals. In short, Southampton did not get the £160m up front.
Martin had to contend with smaller, more economic signings in the final weeks before the deadline, largely in the way of loans. Solak could not have injected more cash even if he wanted to, since the club is on the edge of FFP regulations. Southampton are still paying for players brought in over recent years — because of amortisation, where fees are spread over the length of a player’s contract — repaying the MSD Capital loan taken out during the Covid-19 pandemic, and dealing with the financial impact of relegation. The only permanent signing in the window’s closing stages was Stewart, signed for an initial £8m from Sunderland, but he will not be fit for a few more weeks.
There was disappointment that Southampton ended up selling Nathan Tella, who made an immediate impact in the first three matches of the campaign, scoring and assisting once. The coaching staff thought Tella would score 15-plus goals this season.
The hierarchy, however, successfully played the waiting game, with Bayer Leverkusen’s £20m offer trumping Burnley in the final fortnight of the window. Southampton sold the winger for almost double what he was thought to be worth at the start of the summer but delaying his sale limited time to find a replacement, having missed out on Patrick Roberts from Sunderland before then making a late attempt to steal Aston Villa’s Jaden Philogene from Hull City. Ideally, senior figures would have further strengthened in midfield too.
The protracted nature of player sales — even Ward-Prowse and Lavia started the season with Southampton — caused consternation among those players who wanted out, complicating Martin’s attempts to drive through his vision. Others were told they could leave up until the final weeks of the window.
Seven days before the deadline, Martin publicly confirmed Che Adams, in the final year of his deal and previously set to be sold, had been offered an extension. The proposal on the table is not an improved salary, just a longer contract.
In mitigation, Wilcox and Ankersen gained plaudits for holding out and fetching the top price for most players, such as Lavia, where they profited from Liverpool and Chelsea’s bidding war over Moises Caicedo before Chelsea agreed a deal worth £58m for the 19-year-old. This brought in crucial funds that will help Southampton’s long-term future.
Irrespective of obvious flaws, the playing style is already distinct and, for all its imperfections, is built in Martin’s image. Southampton have averaged the most possession in the Championship (64.1 per cent) and recorded the most touches. They are accused of being one-paced and lacking a cutting edge but they have registered the second-most shots.
Ultimately, though, there is an acceptance that players have been making too many individual mistakes on transition, resulting in Southampton conceding 19 goals from just eight games — the league’s highest.
An expected goal against (xGA) total of 14.2 suggests it is not as if luck is conspiring against them, either. Boos at half-time and groans when the goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, whom Martin has defended strongly, and the defence recycle possession suggests patience will not be afforded. Players are acutely aware of the negativity from supporters, not just now but for several years.
With the visit of Leeds United at the weekend, who have only lost once in the Championship since their relegation last season, Southampton are staring down the barrel of a fifth straight league defeat. There remains a sense Martin will get more time than others would, given what is at stake for the owners and the direction they decided to take, but also due to the mutual understanding of what the manager is trying to build longer term.
Nonetheless, a run like this cannot last forever and now is the time for Martin, Sport Republic and the changes put in place to show there is substance for the future.
(Top photos: Getty Images)
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