Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe picks out three significant changes Southampton have made under new boss Ralph Hasenhüttl...
It hasn’t taken long for Ralph Hasenhüttl’s influence on Southampton to materialise on the pitch. All any fan needed to do was take in the magnificent, gutsy performance against Arsenal on Sunday for evidence that his ideas are starting to take hold.
Three headers – two from Danny Ings in the first half, then one from Charlie Austin in the second to seal it – brought Saints their first three-point haul since September.
It wasn’t a perfect showing by any stretch of the imagination – goalkeeper Alex McCarthy was called into action several times, preventing the Gunners from taking a lead that may not have been recoverable – but it was an undoubted step forward.
That Saints prevailed from such a game with a victory in hand is an early marker of how things are changing. There were clear Hasenhüttl hallmarks on display on Sunday, the following three features synonymous with the Austrian’s style clearly visible at St Mary’s.
Saints looked inspired, didn’t they? Fitter and faster than ever, and brimming with belief that they could go out and beat a team on a 22-game unbeaten streak.
They pressed and harried from the word go; Danny Ings, Stuart Armstrong and Nathan Redmond leading a dogged effort that forced Arsenal into a series of possession errors. They managed to corner Héctor Bellerín and Stephan Lichtsteiner on several occasions, while Laurent Koscielny and Granit Xhaka struggled under duress too.
Several chances were created off the back of this, with one just after Ings’s second goal threatening to put the game to bed by half time.
To employ such a strategy was bold – particularly given Southampton were facing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the fastest striker in the league. He usually thrives against teams that leave him space to run into, but he walked away from St Mary’s empty-handed.
With just a week to work with the squad following the loss to Cardiff City, it’s remarkable just how much Hasenhüttl squeezed from his team’s legs.
They visibly tired in the second half – which was to be expected, given the timeframes at play – but still summoned spurts of energy late on that brought raucous cheers from the crowd.
Harrying the defensive line into an error as late as the 85th minute is something Southampton fans should get used to – it’s just a wonder we saw it so soon.
2. Incisive passing
There was an element of purpose and coordination to Southampton’s attacking moves against Arsenal, the foundation of which was moving the ball forward from back to front fast – but also on the deck.
As the hosts steadily settled into a rhythm, the distribution became crisper, and as gaps started to appear in the Gunners’ midfield, passes began breaking the lines with regularity.
Only Lucas Torreira was able to have any impact on cutting them out, the others struggling and being bypassed with ease.
There were moves that went from goalkeeper to the edge of Arsenal’s box in just three passes—all vertical, all precise, all fizzed into pockets of space.
It gave a huffing, puffing visiting defence no time to rest or recover, and no doubt played a part in wearing them down ahead of the winning goal.
3. The fan connection
Connecting the team to the terraces is crucial to creating a harmonious, positive atmosphere. A club is almost always happy when its fans are happy; a club almost always performs better when its fans are fully behind them.
Hasenhüttl made no secret of his desire to reforge the connection between team and terrace; beer vouchers for season tickets were sent ahead of the Arsenal game, while he’s referred to his task on the south coast as steering a boat, inviting every fan to “row with us.”
On Sunday he handed out paddles, and the stadium combined to help heave the team forward with one massive first stroke.
Hasenhüttl’s animated, passionate nature; his over-the-top celebration of the first goal; his look of utter disbelief when Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s heavily deflected shot rolled in; and the raw emotion displayed for both Charlie Austin’s winner and the post-match celebrations. All of it served to immediately endear himself to the home faithful.
He’s a manager you can buy into; he’s the manager the fans have been crying out for.