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Southampton are either ahead of the curve or being run into the ground

Are Ralph Krueger and Katharina Liebherr torching England's model club or setting them up to become even more successful?

Christopher Lee

Southampton has been the most active major European side in the transfer market so far this summer, and not in a way that's making their fans happy. They've sold five players, and the combined sale price of these five players was £92 million. They've spent £18.8 million of that on two players, Graziano Pellè and Dušan Tadić, and they haven't been very seriously linked to many other signings.

Thus far it's been a concerning summer for a club that was widely admired just a few months ago, but what it all means is anyone's guess. Is this the beginning of the end of Southampton's rise in the Premier League, or just a hiccup on the way to greater success? At the moment, it's not clear what their greater plan is; it's equally possible that they're in full slash-and-burn mode or in the process of outsmarting all of their competitors.

Starting from their promotion to the Championship until last January, Southampton were English football's model club. They invested in their youth academy, gave their young talent opportunities and played a fearless, up-tempo style, even against the biggest clubs. They were everything that other mid-sized club should aspire to be. That changed on January 15, when chairman Nicola Cortese stepped down after a dispute with owner Katharina Liebherr.

Manager Mauricio Pochettino reportedly considered following Cortese out the door, but decided to finish the season at Southampton. At the end of the 2012-13 campaign, when there were rumors that Cortese might depart shortly, Pochettino stated in no uncertain terms that he couldn't see himself at the club without Cortese.

"Me on a personal sense, I would not understand a Southampton without Nicola being here. When I first arrived here, nobody knew who Mauricio Pochettino was. Nicola put his faith in me and knew me from way, way back. When I got to know his project, we were basically on the same wavelength as to what we wanted for Southampton in the future. Basically, my future in Southampton has to be with Nicola."

So, unsurprisingly, Pochettino departed in May. It appeared that he, along with Cortese, had ambition to push towards becoming one of the Premier League's elite clubs, while Southampton's ownership was not willing to spend the money necessary to match their ambitions.

Within a month, Rickie Lambert and Luke Shaw had been sold. Adam Lallana followed shortly afterwards, then Callum Chambers, then Dejan Lovren. From the outside, it looks like Southampton is stripping assets ahead of a sale, resulting in a nice windfall for the owners and a pretty hassle-free sale process.

New chairman Ralph Krueger has rebutted those claims, saying back in May that there was "zero" chance the Liebherr family would sell Southampton. He also appeared to put his foot down regarding further player sales on Tuesday, stating that Jay Rodriguez and Morgan Schneiderlin -- who were believed to have agreed deals to join Pochettino at his new club, Tottenham Hotspur -- would not be sold.

Krueger also stated that new signings are coming, and that he wants to complete them as soon as possible so that new boss Ronald Koeman had time to get his squad settled before the new season.

This is all completely contrary to the image that everything going on at Southampton has conjured up over the last seven months, but it's not entirely out of the question that there was a method to the madness and that Southampton are going to come out of this stronger than before.

While the players that have left Southampton were stars for them, they're hardly once-in-a-generation talents. Lallana spent a good chunk of his career in League One and was merely solid in his first Premier League season, Dejan Lovren was an above-average Ligue 1 defender purchased for £8.5m just a year ago. Even the fullback tandem of Shaw and Chambers -- the best youngsters at their positions in England -- are just fullbacks, and collecting £46 million for a pair of promising but not yet fully developed fullbacks is extraordinary. There's another Lovren out there for Southampton to buy, another Lallana to develop and an assembly line of players like Chambers sitting in the Southampton youth team. Shaw might be irreplaceable, yes, but Southampton just got a team to pay £30 million for a not-yet world class left back.

Meanwhile, Southampton could end up putting some of this money back into St. Mary's Stadium and their training facility, which is reportedly getting £30 million worth of upgrades. They could buy great complimentary players, sell remaining wonderkids Sam Gallagher and James Ward-Prowse for more money than they received for the homegrown talents before them, replace them with more great home-grown signings and eventually turn themselves into something that resembles Udinese's road to success, or if they're feeling really ambitious, Borussia Dortmund's rise back to the top tier of world football.

But despite Krueger's stern words and logic behind Southampton's sales, it's easy to be cynical about their future. Their sales could be part of a master plan to build a foundation for a sustainable challenge to England's elite clubs, or Liebherr could just be another Karl Oyston, the Blackpool chairman that everyone hates for a multitude of reasons. At the moment, it's impossible to tell if the Saints ownership is engaging in rebuilding or strip-mining.

Whichever route Southampton takes, they'll be the most interesting club in England to watch over the next year. They're either so far ahead of the curve on the new economics of the transfer market that they're about to make everyone else look very stupid, or they're running a great team into the ground to make a fortune.