Cast your mind back to December 2018; Santiago Solari is in charge of Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United are behind Everton in seventh in the Premier League, and Southampton sit precariously in the relegation zone.
With the Saints sitting 18th in the league, it came as no surprise when the Southampton board decided to axe then-manager Mark Hughes to “recover their lost identity”, after only winning 3 of their last 22 league games under the Welshman. Ralph Hasenhüttl was confirmed as Hughes’ replacement, and the man dubbed ‘The Alpine Jurgen Klopp’ has certainly improved the south coast team since his arrival. Southampton have lost only eight of the twenty games Hasenhüttl has managed in the league, which have included huge wins against Arsenal and Tottenham, that have helped Hasenhüttl’s Saints climb up to two places above the relegation zone and six points ahead of 18th placed Cardiff. So, what has the former RB Leipzig manager done that has changed Southampton’s fortunes?
Change of system
Under Mark Hughes, Southampton usually set up with a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation as they looked to defend and grind out results but were mostly unsuccessful. Since taking over, Hasenhüttl has reverted to using formations that feature three central defenders; mostly switching between a 3-4-2-1 and a 3-5-2 system. This allows one of the centre backs, usually Jannick Vestergaard, to have space and move into midfield with the ball, creating attacks from deep. Its also beneficial when defending as the extra defender can come out and put pressure on the opposition. The three centre backs also allow for the use of wing-back to provide the width for Southampton, frequently seeing Ryan Bertrand on the left side and Yan Valery on the right side getting forward and adding to the attacks as well as getting back and creating a back five at times to defend the opposition.
The Austrian likes to set his team up with two forward players behind a central striker. Nathan Redmond is usually one of those two who play behind the striker and makes lots of runs into space as Southampton look to play quick attacking football. Either Shane Long, Danny Ings or Charlie Austin play a huge role in the central striking role, often dropping deep to build up the play and spread the ball to the likes of the wing backs and Redmond who find themselves in space. The high pressing has been a huge part of Southampton’s success under Hasenhüttl and it was shown by the goal after just seven seconds previously against Watford, with Long pressing the Watford defence and intercepting a long ball before calming chipping Ben Foster.
Getting the best out of current stars
One of Hasenhüttl’s best qualities as a coach is his ability to get an arm around players and motivate them. This has been highlighted by the treatment of some of those Southampton stars that were under performing under Mark Hughes.
James Ward-Prowse has shown his potential since breaking into the team but has not showed it too often prior to Hasenhüttl’s appointment. However, under Hasenhüttl the technically gifted midfielder has been instrumental to their success and has performed throughout, even earing a rare England cap in their Euro qualifier win against Montenegro.
Nathan Redmond has been very influential for Hasenhüttl’s Saints. He often played on the wing under Mark Hughes but has been even more effective playing more centrally for Hasenhüttl, either as a striker or just behind. The Austrian manager has also got the best out of many other of the main starters such as Danny Ings and Jannick Vestergaard.
Giving youth a chance
Theo Walcott, Luke Shaw, Gareth Bale. Southampton have brought through some tremendous talent from their academy and producing young talent is in The Saints’ history. Hasenhüttl has done a superb job at giving youth a chance during his tenure in charge so far.
Hasenhüttl has shown a lot of trust in academy graduates, giving game time to the likes of Yan Valery and Josh Sims. Hasenhüttl has said in recent interviews, “the most important thing is that the young guys know we watch them, we have shown that we trust them, and they have shown that we are okay to trust them.”
Southampton achieved two top ten Premier League finishes as well as a Europa League group stage qualification under Ronald Koeman, but those happier times have seemed a distant memory in recent seasons having been in relegation dog-fights. However, after the turn around from Hasenhüttl this season, The Saints look relatively safe with a six-point cushion above 18th place Cardiff and you would expect them to stay up, so who knows what the ‘Alpine Klopp’ can pull off next season. In his first season in the Bundesliga Hasenhüttl guided a newly promoted RB Leipzig to a second-place finish in Germany’s top tier, so what can he achieve in first full season in charge of the Saints?