Nathan Jones’ approval rating as Southampton manager has barely exceeded zero since arriving at the south coast from Luton Town in November.
Greeted with a noticeable wave of indifference by Saints supporters following his appointment, the sight of nearly 10,000 empty seats at St Mary’s for an EFL Cup quarter-final against Manchester City was an indicator of the current mood around of the club.
Jones lost his first four Premier League games in charge and when Southampton fell one goal behind in the FA Cup third round tie at Crystal Palace at the weekend, visiting support questioned the validity of his methods and the quality of football in what can be politely described as graphic and robust terms.
Southampton went on to win, of course, but it’s a sign of the instant hit demands placed on a new manager that someone who only took over in November was seen by some as a serious candidate for the dismissal in early January.
And so it was, with football’s glorious capacity for surprise, that Jones and Southampton upended form and logic in the EFL Cup quarter-finals as the Premier League’s last club deserved to topple the champions title and the competition. favorites by a 2-0 margin.
Southampton have now been handed a semi-final with Newcastle United as they close in on an unlikely Wembley appearance given their struggles this season.
To describe the mood among those in favor of Southampton before kick-off as pessimistic would be considered a masterpiece of understatement.
And while a victory of this magnitude doesn’t mean it’s time to start serving big helpings of humble pie, Jones certainly deserved his celebration on the pitch and the warm ovation he received as he walked down the tunnel, because he can now contemplate an EFL Cup. semi final.
Jones has only cup victories to his name since his appointment but this result should act as a boost to confidence ahead of a crucial Championship game against fellow Everton wrestlers at Goodison Park on Saturday.
He was clearly hurt by the criticism, so he was clearly delighted when he said: “I’m really proud of the players, myself and the coaches.
“We’ve been through a lot recently, people questioning a lot of things. It kind of justifies why we’re here and what a team we’re trying to build.
“We’ve been excellent. It’s building. I’ve played three Premier League games and only had one day to prepare for Liverpool.
“I’m not [magician] David Blain. I understand people’s frustrations but we are building. Rome wasn’t built in a day – we’re on our way.”
The beef about Jones from the Saints’ following was a perceived over-reliance on the long ball and the home loss to Nottingham Forest when they failed to even muster a shot on target, a been a particular bone of contention among fans.
What a contrast it was then as Southampton showed all the qualities that Jones says are hallmarks of his team, namely aggression and intensity coupled with fierce pressing.
There was quality in goal too, with Sekou Mara clipping a clean finish past Stefan Ortega, before Moussa Djenepo showed confidence and audacity to spot City goalkeeper Stefan Ortega inexplicably out of position to lift a long distance finish above his head in front. disbelieving Saints fans.
Even with the interval lead of two goals, there was still the lingering fear among Southampton supporters that City would do what they have done so many times before and turn this game around.
Pep Guardiola tried to breathe life into City as Kevin de Bruyne and Erling Haaland were sent on, but even though Argentina’s World Cup winner Julian Alvarez had a few presentable chances which he couldn’t take, he didn’t there was never a time when Southampton was under siege. .
Jones was in good spirits after the win and who can blame him? He’s had to listen to harsh judgments about his work since joining St Mary’s, so the manner of performance and such a result against elite opponents like Manchester City, and one of the game’s great managers in Guardiola, will make wonders for himself. confidence on and off the field.
As Jones said, it’s just the start, but it will give food for thought to those who question his credentials and will also give Southampton players confidence in what the 49-year-old Welshman can deliver.
It must be a platform for Jones and Southampton. The goodwill gained here will quickly evaporate if they don’t do it again at Everton.
It was a dirty night on the south coast as driving rain and high winds battered St Mary’s, but as the cheers rang out at the final whistle, it may also have been the night when the first rays of light broke through for the previously beleaguered Southampton manager.