On the two-year anniversary of Ralph Hasenhüttl's arrival as Southampton manager, guest columnist Sam Tighe takes a closer look at some of the key moments and tactical evolutions that have shaped the manager's reign...
1. Winds of change
Ralph Hasenhüttl’s first win at the helm came in his first home game. A passionate St Mary’s crowd watched Saints out-run, out-fight and eventually out-last Arsenal thanks to a team performance founded on grit and determination.
It was a performance and result that restored faith and fight not only among the players, but among the fans too. It showed clear hallmarks of rigorous training and attuning to Hasenhüttl’s energetic blueprint – the result of a first full week on the training pitch under his guidance.
It’s fitting that the first goal of that game – and of Hasenhüttl’s tenure – was scored by Danny Ings, a player who has grown into one of the league’s most influential forwards under the Austrian’s stewardship.
Inspired and newly confident, Saints travelled to relegation rivals Huddersfield Town six days later and scored another three. That made it two wins on the bounce, after previously earning just one from 16 games.
2. Consistently inconsistent
Hasenhüttl’s first-year impact at Saints followed a fairly traditional pattern: there was an immediate spike which earned crucial wins, but after a few months the team plateaued.
Through January and February, the team’s performances were frustratingly inconsistent, lacking the desired assertiveness and focus – or a “sharpness,” as the Austrian often put it in his post-match analysis.
That changed in early March. 1-0 down and thoroughly outplayed by Tottenham Hotspur at half-time –”it was almost like a training match,” said Jermaine Jenas on Match of the Day – Hasenhüttl made a double substitution, bringing on Shane Long and Josh Sims, to up the energy of the side and take the game to their opponents.
Two second-half goals completed the turnaround and sparked a mini-run of good results. Brighton & Hove Albion and Wolves were beaten and those victories essentially secured Premier League survival for the season.
3. A tough start to 2019/20
A good end to the 2018/19 season and a very strong pre-season campaign led to high hopes heading into the new campaign, but things didn’t go to plan.
Consecutive losses to Burnley and Liverpool opened things up, and although seven points from three games against Brighton, Manchester United and Sheffield United helped recover some momentum, a poor run followed.
Eight games without a win – including a shattering loss to Leicester City in the pouring rain – saw Saints sink into the relegation zone. November’s 2-1 home loss to Everton sparked a rather honest assessment from the boss.
“No-one wanted the ball. You could feel the lack of self confidence," Hasenhüttl said. “At the moment we are not good enough."
4. A crucial international break
One of the clear trends to Southampton’s performance levels under Hasenhüttl has been how well they emerge from international breaks. When given time to intensely coach and develop his players at the training ground, the results are typically spectacular.
The November 2019 international break might well have been the most important of all. The aforementioned poor run of results sparked some soul-searching and forced a realignment to the Austrian’s tactical philosophy during this period and they came out firing.
The performance at the Emirates Stadium on November 23rd was a watershed moment. Brimming with belief and energy, they swarmed all over the Gunners, slicing through them with ease.
It was the first time the 4-2-2-2 formation – now seen weekly – really took hold. Hasenhüttl largely favoured a three-man defensive line over the course of his first 12 months, occasionally switching to four to see if it would stick. Finally, here, it did, and we’ve not seen a three-man back line even once since.
Alexandre Lacazette may have scored at the death to force a share of the spoils that day, but Saints were magnificent. It fuelled a Christmas period in which they managed four wins and a draw from five games, including a thrilling 2-0 away win against Chelsea on Boxing Day.
5. Lockdown focus
March’s national lockdown forced the Premier League to hit pause, giving Hasenhüttl another golden chance to address a dip in form and re-energise his troops.
Meanwhile, The Playbook – an overarching club philosophy that will see all age groups taught Hasenhüttl’s methods and look to ease first-team transition in the future—was rolled out and enacted.
A focus of those learnings is the work “against (off) the ball”. Hasenhüttl often refers to his team’s “automatisms” when discussing pressing, with his aim to install pressing triggers and movements that are so ingrained, they become automatic.
But with the senior side, the focus of lockdown fell on their on-the-ball work: Doing more with it, creating more chances and scoring more goals.
Saints came flying out of the traps in June, winning three of their first four games. That included a 1-0 win over Manchester City in which Ché Adams scored an incredible long range strike.
The form continued, and the 18 points accrued in June and July was the third-most in the league – behind only the two Manchester clubs. That momentum has been shifted into the 2020/21 campaign, with Southampton winning five of their first 10 games.
A 2020 table would have Saints placed sixth – that’s over the course of 28 games, proving this upturn extends far beyond a temporary purple patch.