His Southampton side are speedy, slick and full of energy – and now have Europe in their sights… Not sacking Ralph Hasenhuttl after the 9-0 Leicester humiliation is THE best decision this season
- After the 9-0 thrashing against Leicester, Southampton looked down and out
- Ralph Hasenhuttl was on the brink of being sacked after Saints’ torrid start
- Somehow he kept his job and Saints are reaping the rewards for keeping the faith
- Hasenhuttl has built a team with a clear identity who follow his every instruction
- Danny Ings’ 10 goals from his last 11 games now see Saints aiming for Europe
In late July, amid the idyllic surrounds of the Austrian Alps, Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg told Sportsmail that, under boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, they would be ‘disgusting to play against’.
As summer made way for autumn back in the UK, it transpired that Saints were disgusting to watch.
A return of one point from seven matches – including a club-record 9-0 home defeat by Leicester – had Hasenhuttl on the brink of the sack.
Southampton’s decision not to sack boss Ralph Hasenhuttl has proved to be a masterstroke
The Austrian did not even get a response in the wake of the that humiliation. Their next game at St Mary’s was a 2-1 defeat by Everton, a team who had not won away from home in nine months.
Afterwards, Hasenhuttl looked and sounded like a beaten man. When a manager talks of his players not even wanting the ball, you wonder how much they want him.
Somehow, though, he survived November’s international break – a fertile sacking ground – and history could yet repackage such indecision at boardroom level as one of the best decisions the club has ever made.
For here they are, just two months on, looking up and not down, a run of six wins from nine league games taking them from 19th to 12th and just three points off Wolves in seventh.
Afterward Southampton’s 9-0 humiliation, Hasenhuttl looked and sounded like a beaten man
Hasenhuttl was on the brink of being sacked following the club-record home defeat in October
One football podcast even suggested this week that Hasenhuttl should be in contention for manager of the year.
Jurgen Klopp and Chris Wilder might have something to say about that, but the logic applied was that Hasenhuttl has built a team with a clear identity, with players diligently applying his every instruction. And that would be right.
At Leicester on Saturday they were quicker and slicker from minute one to 90, coming from behind to win 2-1.
The alternative league table based on Expected Goals has Saints in sixth, an indication that, even during their early-season struggle, performances were better than results. Now, they have married the two.
In ditching a back five for a traditional 4-4-2, Hasenhuttl has made Saints more frugal in defence and more efficient in attack.
Saints exacted their revenge when they came from behind to beat the Foxes 2-1 last Saturday
It may appear a simple tweak, but formations alone do not win matches. Hasenhuttl, like Klopp, believes that winning the ball in the final third is a better source of creativity than any playmaker.
He has reminded his players that, statistically, the chance of creating a goal is higher within 10 seconds of taking the ball from your opponent, for they will invariably be out of position. Watch Danny Ings’ winner at Leicester and Hasenhuttl’s theory is put into practice.
But before we talk about Ings and his 14 league goals, it is important to mention his role as Southampton’s ‘trigger’.
Hasenhuttl’s success at RB Leipzig – he took them to second in their first season in the Bundesliga – was built around a high press, and that needs a forward of energy and aggression to take the lead.
Hasenhuttl’s (right) success at Bundesliga side RB Leipzig was built around a high press
That man is Ings, the striker whose decision to hassle and hurry is the trigger for others to follow.
To thrive and survive in Hasenhuttl’s side you have to sprint, be that in an offensive or defensive capacity. He has drilled into his players that their attacks begin when the opposition have the ball.
James Ward-Prowse has perhaps benefited most from his manager’s philosophy. Hasenhuttl previously thought the midfielder was not sharp enough when out of possession. Not anymore.
He and Hojbjerg ran all over Leicester’s midfield and had the craft to create once their graft had won possession.
But sweating the hard yards counts for little without an ice-cool finisher – and again that man is Ings.
James Ward-Prowse (left) and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (right) ran all over Leicester’s midfield
Ings has 10 goals from his last 10 starts for the Saints which has seen them rocket up the table
He has 10 goals from his last 10 starts and, having made the difference to the tune of 13 points this season, no player has had a greater impact on one team in the Premier League.
So while Hasenhuttl’s training-ground drills and video sessions give Saints the platform to succeed, it is Ings who is taking them to another level.
He shoots, he scores – that is Ings on current form – and when a player is so on song suddenly everything else is in tune too.
So much so there is talk of Europe – and they don’t mean a pre-season training camp in Austria. There is certainly nothing disgusting about Southampton right now.
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