“It’s amazing what the team can do in a week. It was very intensive…I’m very proud of how focused and uncompromising they were.”
Those were the words from new Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhüttl after his side ended Arsenal’s 22-game unbeaten run in all competitions to gain his first win in English football for his new club.
Many had not heard much of the Austrian before his arrival at the South Coast in early December, but this unexpected win over Unai Emery’s Gunners has made many aware of this unique personality in European football.
Over the past five years, Southampton’s decline from top-half regulars to relegation candidates has been disappointing to see. The departures of former managers Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman to more established and ambitious Premier League clubs did not help matters.
Following this, the Saints hierarchy were left with eggs on their faces when they sacked Claude Puel for achieving the extremely disappointing feat of an eighth-place finish in the Premier League along with a League Cup Final appearance.
But following the dire managerial appointments such as Mark Hughes and Mauricio Pellegrino at St Mary’s, Southampton finally have a manager with the vision and tactical expertise to see them rise back up the table, and Sunday’s win over Arsenal proves that important steps have already been made with regards to achieving exactly that…
Der Überflieger (The Overachiever)
Despite having a managerial career spanning just over a decade, Hasenhüttl comes to English football with a remarkable record of overachievement in the German game. The Austrian started his managerial career at Third Division side SpvGG Unterhachting but it was at VfR Aalen where he enjoyed his first bout of success, taking them from the bottom of the German third-tier to the 2.Bundesliga in just eighteen months.
Hasenhüttl defied the odds once again to keep Aalen in the German Second Division in the 2012/13 season, before joining Ingolstadt 04 in October 2013 who were bottom of the second tier. After guiding ‘Die Schanzer’ to a mid-table finish six months after taking over, the Austrian then took the club to the Bundesliga for the first time in Ingolstadt’s history, finishing the 2014/15 season as 2.Bundesliga champions.
Hasenhüttl takes on the top flight
Hasenhüttl’s next challenge was to take over RB Leipzig in 2016, who were playing in their first season in the German top-flight having been promoted five times in seven seasons since its creation in 2009. Under Hasenhüttl’s positive playing style, Lepizig finished as Bundesliga runners-up thereby qualifying for the Champions League, becoming the first ever newly-promoted team to achieve European football after only one season in the top-flight.
Hasenhüttl has proven, throughout his somewhat brief managerial career, that this record of overachieving is not simply a fluke. The Austrian has managed to take teams of low stature and with limited resources, and exceed their expectations with regards to domestic results.
The fact that he went from a Third Division club to managing in the German top flight in the space of three years is testament to Hasenhüttl’s ability to motivate and revolutionize his players in a quick and effective manner.
If the Austrian extends his revolutionary record of overachievement to the fortunes of Southampton Football Club, then the Saints could be challenging in the upper echelons of the English top-flight, a point which they nearly progressed to when Pochettino was their coach.
Passion and Pressing
In his first press conference as the new Southampton manager, Hasenhüttl immediately informed the world that his intense style of play that he earned praise for at Leipzig and Ingolstadt would be implemented once again at St Mary’s.
While he is commonly nicknamed as the ‘Klopp of the Alps’, the Austrian’s training methods are compared more closely to Leeds’ Marcelo Bielsa and Arsenal’s Unai Emery. The new Saints boss has introduced multiple training sessions per day so his new players can get up to speed with his philosophy, while Hasenhüttl is also very reliant on video analysis sessions; a phenomenon which is commonplace in the Bundesliga and is starting to infiltrate into UK football.
Yet a tactical element which Hasenhüttl is renowned for is his successful use of the high press and subsequent counter-press. Before the Arsenal game on Sunday, the Austrian told Sky Sports that his success at Leipzig was mainly down to how quickly his side transitioned from not having the ball to putting it in the back of the opposition’s net.
“It was about winning the ball and scoring in ten seconds” said Hasenhüttl. “We were famous for this. But the secret of our success was our commitment against the ball. In this, we were the best in the Bundesliga.”
Applying the tactics against Arsenal
At the weekend, the Saints showed their commitment to get to grips with their new manager’s style of play. The below heat map of Southampton’s players on Sunday’s pitch reveals that they were happy to sit back against the Gunners, but at the same time put them under pressure in awkward areas of the pitch.
These areas were notably the space in-between the centre circle and the Arsenal penalty area, and also the Gunners’ wide centre-backs and full backs – also known as Stephan Lichtsteiner and Granit Xhaka who were playing out of position.
Furthermore, Southampton’s players also excelled in their individual responsibilities as they demonstrated a hunger to chase the ball when the home side were out of possession and get in and amongst the Arsenal players. The Saints’ central players in midfield – Oriol Romeu, Pierre-Emile Hojberg and Stuart Armstrong – made a staggering 26 attempted tackles, blocks and interceptions between them
The defensive minded players Jannik Vestergaard, Matt Targett and captain Jan Bednarek also accumulated a collective total of 22 interventions. This strong desire to win the ball back has come from the manager himself and Hasenhüttl’s extremely visible passion on the touchline has reverberated onto his playing staff.
It’s a Young Man’s Game
Throughout his career as a manager, Hasenhüttl has shown a great deal of faith in young players and his frequent use of players under the age of 23 makes him an ideal fit for Southampton.
During his time at Ingolstadt, a key player in Hasenhüttl’s side who achieved promotion to the Bundesliga was the then-22-year old Pascal Gross. The midfielder, who now plies his trade at Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League, arguably had his best ever season under Hasenhüttl, scoring seven goals and contributing a whopping 16 assists in the 2014-15 German Second Division season.
And at RB Leipzig, Hasenhüttl oversaw the development of young players such as Lukas Klostermann, Timo Werner, Dayot Upamecano, Jean-Kevin Augustin and Liverpool’s Naby Keita into the Bundesliga side’s starting line-up. Furthermore, the Austrian also got the best out of Ademola Lookman during his six-month loan spell at the Red Bull Stadium last season.
The Everton winger scored five times in eleven Bundesliga appearances and the fact that the former Charlton man has yet to repeat this form at Goodison Park during the current season proves how talented Hasenhüttl is with regards to managing young players.
At St Mary’s, the Southampton boss has the potential to work with one of the best academies in English football as recent graduates of the Saints youth set-up include Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Everton’s Theo Walcott who scored over 100 goals for Arsenal.
Will the new boss embrace Saints’ youthful philosophy?
In addition to this, there is some evidence to suggest that Hasenhüttl has already identified the emerging young talents at his new club. In the Arsenal game, the Austrian gave young defender Jan Valery only his third career start, while he also entrusted 20-year old midfielder Tyreke Johnson to see out the final few minutes against the Gunners.
Add young Irish winger Michael Obafemi, who emerged from the Southampton academy when Mark Hughes was manager, to the list and Hasenhüttl may be tasked with bringing through the next batch of young Southampton stars into the Premier League.
While the Arsenal result has revealed an ambitious beginning to Hasenhüttl’s reign at St Mary’s, the Austrian’s Premier League career is still in its early stages and there is much more work to be done for Southampton to steer clear from the bottom three.
However, the former Leipzig manager has form with regards to turning relegation-threatened teams into top-half teams and European outfits. If history is anything to go by, then Saints fans have every right to be cheerful.