Tactical Watch: Return to Ralphball

By SFC Media time Wed 08 Jan Saints v Leicester City
Photo by Matt Watson

Tactics writer Sam Tighe, from Bleacher Report, analyses how Ralph Hasenhüttl revitalised his Southampton team from a low ebb...

This weekend Southampton have the chance to avenge some demons; to set the record straight after a humbling experience two and a half months ago.

Saturday’s opponents, Leicester City, scored nine without reply on their trip to St Mary’s in October. It was, to an extent, one of those freakish games where everything seemed to fall for the Foxes, where every shot carried that extra bit of zip or swerve. 

But it was also a night when Southampton experienced their nadir; this, plus the trio of losses that followed, sparked a round of serious introspection during the November international break.

Since then, Saints have won six games from 10 and now travel to the King Power Stadium on a five-game unbeaten streak. They look a different team, truly, to the one who looked lost in the pouring rain on October 25th. 

So, outside of the obvious – Danny Ings’s predatory brilliance, for example – what’s changed?

Return to Ralphball

The performance straight out of the international break, away to Arsenal, was both different and familiar.

Different in that it represented a big step away from October’s showings; familiar in that it felt a lot like the Southampton side we’ve come to expect under Ralph Hasenhüttl.

“When the manager came in, we had an immediate identity of how we played – with and without the ball – and I think we had lost that a little bit,” James Ward-Prowse admitted in December.

“We were very much in between a few things and we weren’t clear on our way, but I think in that international break we were able to find that identity, and you could see that in the game at Arsenal, which was a massive turning point in our season.”

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 01: Shane Long during the Premier League match between Southampton FC and Tottenham Hotspur at St Mary's Stadium on January 1, 2020 in Southampton, United Kingdom. (Photo by Chris Moorhouse/Southampton FC via Getty Images)
Saints hurried Tottenham into mistakes in the New Year's Day meeting at St Mary's

All the typical hallmarks of Ralph’s style were there: boldness and aggression off the ball, forcing mistakes; quick transitions in possession, not hesitating and playing into space; and utilising speed wherever possible to punish the Gunners.

It’s that first part – the boldness and aggression – that really stands out. Southampton have realigned with Hasenhüttl’s principles and become truly horrible to play against – you can see it, and advanced statistics back it up vividly.

Passes [allowed] per defensive action (PPDA) measures how often teams disrupt opponents; the lower the number, the fewer passes you allow to be strung together. 

Southampton (9.12) have the strongest score in the league – ahead of Leicester (9.15) and Liverpool (9.51). For contrast, Newcastle United register an impressively passive (19.22).

Similarly, if you tally up all duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opposition possession, Southampton record the strongest number (6.9). Again, for contrast, Newcastle are weakest again, with (4.8).

The performances since November have boosted these tallies massively, meaning Saints read much more like a Hasenhüttl creation on the stats sheet than before. They’re the most prolific pressers in the Premier League.

Settled personnel

It can be hard to build a run of form when you lack a consistent base to play off, and up until the Arsenal game, there’s no doubt Southampton lacked that.

The defensive personnel changed every week without fail for the first nine matchweeks, fitness issues continually forcing Hasenhüttl into switching things up. 

The same five were retained for the first time from Wolves moving into Leicester, matchweeks nine into 10, then games against Manchester City, Everton and Arsenal saw different combinations again.

During this period, a goalkeeping switch occurred too, further complicating matters of consistency and familiarity.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 01: Alex McCarthy of Southampton saves during the Premier League match between Southampton FC and Tottenham Hotspur at St Mary's Stadium on January 01, 2020 in Southampton, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images)
Saints have now kept clean sheets in three of their last four games in all competitions

So it’s perhaps no coincidence that, following the impressive performance at the Emirates Stadium, the same back four has been rolled out a further eight times and results, in turn, have dramatically improved. 

Finally, Hasenhüttl can lean on a consistent base, the likes of Cédric and Ryan Bertrand putting injuries behind them. 

Complimenting that is Alex McCarthy’s brilliance between the sticks and what is probably Jack Stephens’s best-ever patch of form, all slotted around the reliable Jan Bednarek.

Saints used a whopping 10 different players in centre-back and wing-back roles through the first 12 league matches this season; the points tally over that period was eight. 

In the nine matches since they’ve used just four, earning 17 points – just over double the amount in three-quarters of the time.

Consistency, both in style and in personnel, will often be cited by managers as the backbone of a successful team. Since November, Southampton have found both.


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