A lot of things have changed for Southampton Football Club since October 2019. Hell, it feels like a lifetime ago now as we live through a piece of history that will be studied in schools by our great grandchildren.
Southampton’s U-turn under Ralph Hasenhüttl is nothing short of remarkable – from seemingly being on the brink of saying goodbye after a 9-0 loss at home and lingering in the relegation zone, to signing a new four-year contract just eight months later.
The question on everybody’s lips is: “Ralph, how did you do it?”
When the rain came crashing down almost apocalyptically on that Monday night in October, it was only a little tease of what was to come.
You could argue that Saints have been underperforming for a few seasons, but they just didn’t fit the silhouette of a team who should be kicking off every 10 minutes on their own ground. They weren’t exactly being mismanaged and while in the relegation zone, weren’t on a downward trajectory.
This poses an even bigger job for the manager; a defeat that bad for a team that isn’t always flirting with with calamity could send them into a downward spiral. How could anybody possibly steady the ship and get the best out of a talented squad?
Hasenhüttl had spent his whole managerial career in Germany before heading to the south coast. SpVgg Unterhaching, VfR Aalen, FC Ingolstadt 04 and, most notably, RB Leipzig hold a proud place on his CV.
German football has rolled back the years to the ways of the 70s and 80s; coaches are basing their ideologies around fast-paced, full-blooded football. Our minds naturally wander to Jürgen Klopp’s Gegenpressing, but this is a model that has been followed by Hasenhüttl too.
In fact, it’s much more intense than Gegenpressing. Hasenhüttl’s method involves demanding players run and run and run for 90 minutes, it demands players fight for every ball, to die for the badge on the shirt. It comes natural to Teutonic characters and captures what they’re really about. The Bundesliga is leading the pack in terms of the distance players cover during 90 minutes, and even the speeds they record.
It’s an ever-growing style of management that only a select few have mastered. It’s brutal at times but it has to be that way. Football is an unforgiving game and a ruthless streak has to to be unleashed at times.
Southampton have harnessed this intensity admirably since that bleak October night. Back then the players looked deflated, personnel changes were made and formations were tweaked. Tactical changes helped of course; a fresh new system would help them get out of the small rut and make it harder for teams to play against them.
Hasenhüttl played around with formations a little but always had a solid three-man defensive line. It just never seemed to stick though. After the 9-0 defeat, he reverted back to what saw success at RB Leipzig – the 4-2-2-2. His first change was debatably harsh, but required: Bringing in Alex McCarthy for Angus Gunn between the sticks. Gunn showed signs of brilliance but was far too inconsistent for a goalkeeper.
Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares nailed down the full-back positions while Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek were solid at the back and echoed confidence around the pitch. Set-piece master James Ward-Prowse was now the puppet master, acting as a deep-lying playmaker. The jigsaw fell into place with a pacy and interchanging front four, with Danny Ings in the goalscoring form of his life.
Hasenhüttl backed his beliefs all the way and everybody got on board. From the management to the players to the fans to the neutrals; it dragged you in, something about the Austrian resonates with everybody. The foundations of his beliefs and ideology are based upon what we really fell in love with football for.
The passion, the willingness to die for the cause, the absolute desire for the badge, fans and players both fused together with the same devotion. This is why Ralph Hasenhüttl’s new four-year contract doesn’t come as a surprise, but was only a matter of time after such a drastic upturn in form.