The mercy of Andre Mariner’s full-time whistle at St Mary’s ended Southampton’s protracted humiliation back on 25th October.
A 9-0 mauling at home to Leicester not only saw Southampton record a record-equalling Premier League loss, but it was also their worse ever defeat as an English league side.
“I have never seen a team act like this, there was no fight for anything.” Southampton manager Ralph Hassenhuttl reflected on the gutless showing of his players on a humbling and worrying night for his club.
The Austrian must have feared the worst as his side lay abjectly in the relegation zone without a home win in the league since April and with a goal difference of minus 16. This was a Premier League fiasco that had “managerial casualty” written all over it.
However, the axe was not swung. Hassenhuttl was granted a surprise reprieve and simultaneously given that rarest of commodities in a relegation dog fight; time.
Time to turn things around at an ailing club is a novelty. Behind the scenes, in the boardrooms and corridors of power at clubs flirting with the Premier League trapdoor, the fear of losing out on a place at that, oh so lucrative top table of English football often overrides any sense of sticking with a manager during a rocky patch of form.
Since the start of the 2014/15 season, there have been 41 in-season managerial changes in the Premier League. Most often, it is at clubs that have nose-dived and face the spectre of relegation, where these changes have taken place.
Faced with such statistics and with an alarming run of form Hassenhuttl looked to be a man heading for the exit at St Mary’s. Southampton had shown they had no qualms in spinning the managerial merry-go-round, with four of their managers sacked since their return to the top-flight in 2012. It was a trend that saw them join a host of sides bucking the knee when faced with poor results.
That snap call can pay dividends. The new manager bounce phenomena has seen a broad array of clubs arrest their decline with a new man installed in the dugout. Crystal Palace, Everton, West Ham and most recently Watford have all successfully dabbled in swapping and changing their men in the technical area.
Palace have seen their average league position increase by 6.3 places as they embraced three new managers during a five year period up to September 2017 when Roy Hodgson replaced Frank de Boer. More broadly, on average the new manager bounce is worth around an extra 0.7 points per game, which can equate the flimsy margins between survival and relegation from the top flight.
You can see the temptation to focus on the short term, especially when things have gone to pot during the season and the fans are voting with their feet.
And yet Southampton’s recovery this season shows that this is another route around the problem that has seen others parachuting in the survival experts. The Saints have taken 20 points from 36 available since that humiliating night at the hands of Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City.
They have trusted in an experienced coach who has a recent second-place finish in the Bundesliga on his CV and guided them to safety last season following the dire start to 2018/19 under Mark Hughes.
The pressing, fight and determination shown by his players during their 2-1 revenge victory over the Foxes last weekend shows that a turnaround is possible despite a rocky patch of form. Danny Ings and Shane Long pressed like men possessed at the King Power, as did their midfield colleagues in a show of commitment and belief in their manager’s methods.
Ings has become one of the success stories of the season with his 14 goals thrusting him back into England contention for the European Championships in the summer. Hassenhuttl and his staff must take some credit for this explosion in form and the revitalisation of a player whose career was in danger of stagnation.
Southampton have recorded impressive wins over Spurs and Chelsea and now sit 12th in the table, level on points with Everton and Arsenal. Hassenhuttl’s ploy to go back to the basics of his pressing game has simplified the myriad of problems he faced on the South Coast and improved results in the short term and added clear impetus for the road that lies ahead.
The temptation will always be strong for Premier League clubs to swing the axe and hope for an upturn in results in the short term to stave off relegation. However, the sacking option is not always the best route. Of those aforementioned 41 in-season changes, 10 of the clubs still suffered relegation with four of the new managers not even making it through to the end of the season.
So while it can clearly be argued that pulling the trigger on a struggling coach increases the chances of money-spinning survival, the science is clearly not exact and represents somewhat of a gamble, often coming with no long-term vision of player or squad development.
Sometimes – no matter how poor a run of results might be – the solution may already be in place and the turbulence of managerial change can be avoided if a club’s hierarchy can hold their nerve and show a little faith in a decent coach.
Southampton’s decision to stick with Hassenhuttl could yet prove to be an interesting counter-narrative to the new manager bounce methodology.