Southampton re-birth under Ralph Hasenhuttl just over a year ago, the south coast side was reeling after a humiliating 9-0 loss to Leicester City the biggest home defeat in top-flight history it wasn’t just a poor result but seemed to encapsulate Southampton’s stagnation, as a team which had formerly led the league in clever cut-price recruitment and out of the box managerial hires was put to the sword by a young dynamic fox’s outfit organized by an intelligent and flexible coach
but bravely the Southampton boards stood by coach Hasenhuttl and the club rallied hitting a vein of hot form over Christmas and improving further during lockdown to end the season with five wins in nine finishing up 11th and just 10 points off Leicester in the fifth spot. at the time of writing saints are in fourth and despite another humbling loss to Tottenham hotspur look realistic candidates for European football
so just how did Hasenhuttl mastermind this comeback from the brink?
if in doubt it’s best to go back to what you know and for Ralph Hasenhuttl the Leicester result was a wake-up call prompting him to drop an experimental three at the back system and switch the 4-2-2-2 he used at RB Leipzig and Ingolstadt a modern refit of the classic 4-4-2 it’s similar to Diego Simeone’s prime Atletico Madrid sides using two deep midfielders two narrow wingers and two strikers to create a box around the center of the pitch making it easier to close down defenders and opposition playmakers as they attempt to move the ball out of defense
but the manager didn’t just change the formation he upped the intensity, up until the Leicester game Southampton were a decent pressing side allowing opponents nine passes on average before attempting a defensive action the good mark and fifth-best in the prem,
afterward, opponents only got eight passes before being challenged and while that may not sound like a huge difference it boosted Southampton up to number one in the league over the rest of the campaign. the change saw Hasenhuttl ask more of his squad and they responded admirably. James Ward-Prowse posted the best tackle and interception numbers of his career over the back half of 2019-20 and that’s continued into 2021 with only Leeds completing more challenges per game than the saints.
in the midfield third, they’re especially aggressive ranking first in that area for tackles and third for pressures and they’re just as dynamic when they win the ball back before the nine-nil saints completed around 11 passes before facing an opposition tackle but afterward that dropped to 9.6 not because they’d become worse at passing but because they were playing forward more often and attempting riskier balls with the goal of creating high-value chances
though Southampton were a league average possession side in 2019-20 only Burnley had a lower pass accuracy than their 73 percent as Hasenhuttl had his team race upfield in the aim of catching the opposition out? that helped the side overcome their lack of a dedicated creative midfielder by exploiting transition opportunities,
Hasenhuttlis not so much concerned with possession his team ranging between 43 and 69 percent of the ball in the opening eight weeks of this season as he is with dangerous possession and using deep completions the number of successful passers which finished closer than 20 meters to the opposition goal we can see that saints have gone from 15th in the prem to sixth when it comes to getting on the ball in the danger zone.
meanwhile, that extra defensive pressure on opponents means they allow very few deep completions themselves with only Brighton, Man City and Liverpool ahead of them and while they conceded 12 shots a game in 2019-20 they now give up just 8.6 again behind only Brighton city and the reds
now settled in under hearths and Hasenhuttl Southampton players know their formation their style and their responsibilities but even with the system working they’ve still seen the benefit of some star quality,
Danny Ings was a risky buy for saints in 2019 when they paid Liverpool 20 million pounds triple the reds own outlay for a striker who had played just 14 league games in three years at Anfield but it’s been one of their best purchases of the last decade
after scoring and assisting 10 league goals in 2018-19 he rocketed up the ranks in 2019-20 netting 22 and creating a further two the same number of strikes as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in 300 minutes fewer finishing as the second-highest scorer in the premier league on a goal-shy Southampton meant Ings was responsible for 47 of his club’s total attacking output but he also led the press from the front with just six players across the whole of the league topping his 28 pressures per 90 minutes
and while his shot numbers this season have dwindled from 3 a game to 2.2 Ings has still contributed to 7 goals so far and his partnership with Che Adams is finally bearing fruit, the young Englishman signed for a hefty 15 million pounds from Birmingham City in 2019 took a long time to bed in failing to score in the top flight for 369 days after his move but Hasenhuttl knew he had a hot prospect on his hands rejecting a 20 million pound bid from promotion-chasing Leeds in the January window,
Adams ended up hitting form at the close of 2019-20 to finish the season with respectable six-goal involvement in under 1100 minutes but he’s already close to eclipsing that output after two months of the current campaign, in eight fixtures the 24-year-old has scored three and assisted two at the time of writing and he and Ings both act as the first line of defense for their team and combined for one expected goal per 90 minutes as a partnership better than Chelsea’s Timo Werner and Kai Havertz in the early going and suggesting that if Hasenhuttl could find a quality creator to supplement his attack they could produce even more
despite little money some bad results and a global pandemic Ralph Hasenhuttl has found a way to maximize the talent at his disposal and craft a team with a clear identity who pose a threat to any side in the league and as big clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United continue to recruit haphazardly and struggle to put together consistent form there’s a window for Southampton to soar up the table and the saints go marching on.