Manager looks back on his first 24 months at Saints
"It has meant a lot to me,” says Ralph Hasenhüttl, as he begins summing up the first two years of his time as Southampton manager.
The Saints boss is sitting down in his office at Staplewood Campus, taking a rare moment away from his work to reflect on the events of the past 24 months as he reaches the second anniversary of taking charge at the club.
It was 5th December 2018 when Hasenhüttl was appointed at St Mary’s and, as he explains, it has been quite some journey since then.
"It was emotional, definitely,” he says. “We have had a lot of very emotional moments, fantastic moments.
“A lot of things happened these last two years, it feels for me that I am even longer here now, but I don't have the feeling that I get tired of what I'm doing here and this is a good signal for me.
“I have so much fun with this job, it's so enjoyable to work with all the people here, with my staff, with the chairman, with the people who are working with my team. As I mentioned when I extended my contract (Hasenhüttl signed a new four-year deal in June), I am very happy here, I really love my job here, and part of this journey is to be always motivated and try to do the best for this club.
“It has definitely been two intensive years, with a lot of games, a lot of very good moments and also some not-so-nice moments, but this is part of our business.
“In the end, I think it took long to come into this situation I hoped we would come earlier into, that we are a really competitive team and are able to climb in the table and not to play in the relegation zone.
“It was tough to change our mentality, it was tough to change our behaviours and the way we want to play, but now we are on a good way and hopefully we stay on this way.”
Indeed, when Hasenhüttl arrived, he admitted it would not be a simple process implementing the dynamic, counter-pressing style he had been known for at previous clubs, particularly RB Leipzig, who he had guided to a second-place finish in the Bundesliga before arriving at Saints.
In his first interview after taking over, he explained: “It will be a long journey we have, it will be an intensive one, but also a very emotional one, and one we can enjoy.”
So, how has he found that process?
“When I was coming here, the most important thing was to keep the team in the league,” says Hasehüttl, as he thinks back to the 18th-placed side he inherited. “The only goal we had was to be above the line at the end of the season. We managed this, and the next season, after a difficult start, we ended up in 11th position, so we could see the progress, but we still had moments in the season when we played awful.
“This now seems to be gone more and more, and it seems we have more and more consistency in our performances and that gives us more chances for developing.
“We are not a team that develops so much with signings. We sign players and they have to learn and take time before they can help us. We are more a team that develops in working on the pitch and in getting new habits and behaviours, and that takes sometimes a little bit longer, but in the end it is more based on good fundamentals and lasts hopefully for longer.”
In fact, being part of a bigger project and building something long-lasting is a challenge that Hasenhüttl has relished being part of at Southampton.
He is grateful for the trust placed in him by the board in allowing him to play a role in the overall direction of the club and not only coaching the team.
“This bigger picture they always had, and I am very happy they gave me the chance to work on this and to give them back the trust they have put in me,” he says.
“We all know about the playbook we have put together for the youth. We have the target to develop the coaches in the club. Every year one is with us and learns everything we do all day.
“I think we have definitely turned every stone up to look at what we can do better, and overall the result is a more committed club.
“The way we play at the moment is something I think everybody enjoys watching, it's always intense but also fantastic how we want to play football and how we want to offer the emotions and intensity. We have found an identity that really fits to this club and I cannot imagine being more proud of what we have done here when I see how much work we have put in, everybody here, and this is definitely based on hard-working fundamentals.”
ralph hasenhüttli am a better manager than two years ago. i have learned a lot.
So, as well as the evolution of the team and the club, what about Hasenhüttl himself?
"I have developed a lot, definitely,” he says. “I am a much better manager than two years ago. I have learned a lot.
“We have all developed our game, especially with the ball, in a massive way. I am not stopping learning here, I am still learning with the team about new behaviours, new methods, new chances we can have with the ball and the rest also – I have never before looked at the bigger picture, the playbook, what we did with the coaches here, with the youth. This is something new for me, but I think the older you get as a manager the more you are looking to the bigger picture.
“It was surprising that it comes so quick. I didn't feel so old, but I'm now 53 and I have now a little bit of experience as a manager, so it comes the moment where you feel you want to give all your knowledge to the next one and to the next one. It's not about hiding it for yourself, it's about giving it and making everybody here better in this club, and to give them also a bigger background that they can help you more, and this is something that is changing also in my mind and helps definitely to feel more as a family, more commitment here and this is what we needed and that is one secret of our success in the moment I think.”
Part of that family are the club’s fans, and, even if they have not been able to be in the stadium with the team for most of 2020, Hasenhüttl still keenly feels their presence.
"I always try in every club I have worked in to have a good relationship with the fans, to give them what they really want to see,” he said. “I was the first very disappointed man when it didn't work like I wanted to see, because I disappointed them and this is what I hate the most.
“I want to give them positive emotions and good weekends. I know how it feels to go to bed knowing your team has won and then wake up the next morning and know you have beaten the opponent and stand in a good position in the table, that gives everybody a lift and this is what I want to give them.
“I think they feel it means something to me that I'm here in this club. It should mean something for everybody who is here in this club that they are allowed to work here and to give back what we have to – a lot of passion, a lot of intense work to make everybody better here and I think this is what I tried to show from the first moment on and what I will do to the last day I am here.”
There is plenty of work Hasenhüttl still has his sights set on completing before whenever that day arrives, though.
"We have definitely a long way to go now,” he says, as he leaves the past two years behind and looks to the future. “We are in a good position, but it's not the time to look for the end result. The key is that you still try to get better and we have still some parts in our game that we must always give the right messages and immediately when you see that it's not the right way to go, change it, turn it and do something different.
“We are flexible, and we should be flexible also in the future.
“We have learned it is always good to always ask yourself the biggest question if everything is alright, if everything is perfect, because it is in success that you make the biggest mistakes. Don't lean back and don't think everything goes easily. The Premier League is never easy, and when we are still focused and we stay hungry then there is no reason why we shouldn't be successful in the future.”