Southampton fans were left to rue a last gasp penalty conceded at Turf Moor last weekend. Ashley Barnes’s spot-kick deep into stoppage time robbed the Saints of what would have been a massive three points to ease their relegation troubles.
Their Austrian manager Ralph Hasenhuttl was visibly furious with the result as he applauded his away support up in Lancashire. No doubt his supporters would have shared in their bosses frustration, but they can at least take comfort from the inescapable fact that their club has finally got back on track with a good manager at the helm.
The former RB Leipzig coach has engineered a wonderful upturn in form at a time when the Saints looked all but doomed. It was a decision by the club’s board which may also have other Premier League clubs looking on and taking note about their contingency plans are for future tussles against the top flight trap door.
Bounce or boom?
There is a whole school of thought to back the theory of the bounce a new manager can give to a club. A cynic would say that Southampton’s upturn since December is down to this phenomenon. They wouldn’t be entirely wrong either, but you have to take into consideration just how dire things had gone under Mark Hughes at St Mary’s this season.
The Welshman, like so many of his managerial generation, was parachuted into a footballing mess. The spectre of relegation haunted the proud south coast club back in March 2018 and their experiment with an obscure Argentine was duly cut short. Mark Hughes was the safe pair of hands, the older man with a wise enough head to steer the club out of choppy waters towards the calmer sea of Premier League safety.
It was very much a case of job done in the summer, with survival in the bag, the former Manchester City manager was given a permanent deal. From there, things went south very fast for Hughes and his well thought of methods. Come December last year, the club was hurtling towards disaster, winning one solitary, gloomy game of football, in their opening 16 matches. The axe inevitably fell and Southampton moved for Hassenhuttl immediately. When you consider the wreckage he inherited before Christmas, the Austrian has masterminded a truly staggering turnaround.
A formation tweak here and few players recalled there, and the club looks a different beast entirely. Fiftheen points from his opening ten Premier League games a more than respectable return. More than results though, the players look transformed and galvanised, with a new hunger in their approach to football matches. That is one massive bounce delivered by the Austrian, if that’s how you see it.
Method and madness
Hassenhuttl has been compared to Jurgen Klopp, not just for his football, but for his fiery, emotive presence on the touchline. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it does at least give supporters the impression that they have a manager who gives a damn. When you looked at Hughes with his Southampton coloured tie and passive, almost dismissive expression, you could be forgiven for wondering if he was actually bothered by his results at all.
This is more it to it though, than over-zealous antics in the dugout. A 3-4-2-1 formation and the recall of the likes of Oriol Romeu and Jan Bendarek has had a marked effect on Southampton’s pressing and mobility. The new manager needs good committed men and was clearly willing to work with what he had at his disposal when he took the job.
Hassenhuttl is also known for his highly demanding training sessions, designed to get his players in shape and well versed in running the hard yards. The former Bundesliga boss has also called on youth, throwing in the like of Callum Slattery, Yan Valery and Matt Targett in recent weeks. This boisterous and bold approach has seen the club lose just three of their last ten games and play with so much more shape and purpose. With some of the older guard of managers focused more on survival and all so important results, younger players and real coaching can go by the way side all too often in their regimes.
Long ball merchants
When Premier League clubs get the jitters and turn to the likes of Mark Hughes, Big Sam, David Moyes, and Alan Pardew to save the day, they almost resign their players to the long ball, dull methods of these ageing coaches and their increasingly stale style of play.
Yes, their names are synonymous with safety and security in the top flight, in an age when relegation can devastate a club’s finances. But Southampton are proving there is another way of doing things, a way that involves actually improving your players and utilizing some forgotten or younger elements of the side. Some experiments with continental coaches can back fire, as Mauricio Pellegrino so blatantly proves, but so to can the fire fighting option and the route one approach.
The likes of Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace continue to prove that there is life left yet in that older class of manager. But with Pardew and Allardyce struggling so publicly in their last roles and David Moyes unable to shake off the stigma of being a one directional coach; you cannot help but feel other clubs may look at what Hassenhuttl has done at St Mary’s in just two months, and start to wonder if there is life beyond the long ball merchants at the bottom of the league.