Of two events that happened at Southampton this year, it is difficult to know which one was more surprising.
On 6 November, Saints beat Newcastle to go top of the Premier League for the first time, a landmark achievement which came five months after manager Ralph Hasenhuttl signed a four-year contract extension.
The latter development – a rarity at a club where manager turnover has been high – means that even if the 53-year-old Austrian only stays in his job until the end of 2021, he will have been manager for at least 130 games. The last Saints boss to do that was Chris Nicholl, who was in charge when the Saints were last top of English football’s top flight and was sacked in 1991.
The amazing thing is both these events occurred within 13 months of the horrendous club record 9-0 home defeat by Leicester.
Yet out of that humiliation, the bond between Hasenhuttl and chief executive Martin Semmens was strengthened. And their partnership is proving so successful, it seems Southampton and their fans can look forward to a bright future.
In the immediate aftermath of the Leicester game – both that night and the following morning – Hasenhuttl and Semmens spoke at length. Their discussions were not about the manager’s future but were centred around bringing in more support amid a feeling the Austrian was carrying too much responsibility on his own. His thinking had become clouded.
Against Leicester he played with wing-backs, as he had done for most of the season. This was at odds with the 4-2-2-2 formation he was noted for and had used virtually from the start of his managerial career, with the juniors at SpVgg Unterhaching, a third-tier club in Germany, 13 years ago.
“He didn’t come in and say he knew everything but you could see he was trying something new,” says Steffan Galm, now the club’s director of football but an under-19 coach in 2007 when Hasenthuttl arrived to take charge of the under-18s on a part-time basis while completing his coaching courses.
“His football is with force and power, with team spirit and, at first, not tactical. The most important thing was to be a team together, to have bravery, courage and fun.”
Results – and performances – came quickly. He was moved up to first-team assistant before getting the manager’s job in 2007. He was in charge for three years and then two and a half years at VfR Aalen, steering them to promotion to the second tier in 2012.
It was after this – and his famous cycling spying missions on Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach training sessions (“I couldn’t get away with it now”) – that Hasenhuttl forged his reputation at FC Ingolstadt 04, taking them from the bottom of Bundesliga II into the top flight for the first time in their history. He managed it in less than two years.
Brighton midfielder Pascal Gross, who was at Ingolstadt throughout that time, recalls how the impact was immediate.
“From the first week, no matter what the team was, we trained and played with the same style: really aggressive, trying to press and force mistakes, then quick balls into the strikers when the defence is not organised to get some chances,” he says.
“We pressed so we could win the ball high up – 20, 30, 40 metres in front of the opponent’s goal. Then you only need one pass to get a chance. It was really successful.”
His success at Ingolstadt earned Hasenhuttl his chance at RB Leipzig, where he lasted two years before leaving by mutual consent after a sixth-place finish.
Hasenhuttl had only been out of work six months when Southampton called. Initial scepticism about it being a step down was soon dispelled.
Adam Leitch covered Southampton for the Southern Daily Echo for 18 years, a period featuring 16 different managers. He was staggered by the new man’s forthright approach.
“He spoke with incredible conviction and authority,” he says. “He wasn’t coming in to steady the ship, he was coming in to revolutionise.”
The message delivered to the media was repeated in the dressing room. “A no-excuse, no-nonsense culture was instilled on the training pitch from day one,” said someone well placed to know exactly what was going on.
Hasenhuttl’s approach shook up a club aimlessly floating on a sea of apathy.
He followed a string of disappointing managerial appointments and signings a club operating without owner funding can ill afford – £19m on Argentine striker Guido Carrillo, who joined Elche for free two and a half years later; £18.1m on midfielder Mario Lemina, who is now on loan at Fulham; and £15m on Dutch defender Wesley Hoedt, who was loaned out to Celta Vigo 18 months later.
Within weeks a poster bearing the words “Ralphampton” had appeared outside St Mary’s. Hasenhuttl brought a purpose and drive back to the club that had disappeared since the departures of Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, managers who had brought some of the best days Southampton had enjoyed since the Lawrie McMenemy era of the 1970s and 80s.
The fans responded. They reacted to someone they felt was genuine, friendly and humorous – those who know him say he is the same behind the scenes – had a vision and the best interests of the club at heart.
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But Hasenhuttl did not have the players to implement his tactics in quite the way he wanted. Before the Leicester debacle, Southampton won successive games only twice in 10 months following that initial burst. They were in the middle of an eight-match run without a Premier League win when Brendan Rodgers’ side came to St Mary’s.
“You have to give Ralph credit,” says Dave Merrington, the former Southampton manager who now acts as summariser for all the club’s games on Radio Solent. “If he had stayed on the back foot he would have got sacked.
“When you lose three games in a row as a manager, you don’t sleep at night. Am I picking the right side? Am I using the right tactics? Is the training right? Are we getting the most out of the players? Are we playing the players in the right positions?
“A lot of managers would have said ‘I am not changing’. He did change. He changed the whole style of play from a defensive one to an attacking, pressing one.”
In other words, Hasenhuttl went back to the tactics that served him so well at Ingolstadt and RB Leipzig – and which fuelled so much confidence when he strode into St Mary’s in the first place.
A run of seven wins from 11 Premier League matches took Saints from a perilous 19th in the table to ninth – and with enough breathing space to ensure when lockdown came, Hasenhuttl was able to start work on a project that his club should benefit from, while at the same time providing evidence that the partnership between club and manager is going to be a long one.
The Austrian’s “Southampton playbook” is a coaching blueprint for the academy, aimed at ensuring all the age-group teams use the same methods for what Hasenhuttl calls the “four phases of our game – with the ball, against the ball, playing and using the ball”.
He spent huge amounts of time during lockdown collating material that means, through text, animation and video clips, Hasenhuttl feels he has provided “behaviours for every position”.
The theory is players are able to move up through the age groups, and eventually into the first team, with detailed knowledge of how to play. Evidently, this requires continuity at senior level, hence the feeling Hasenhuttl is happy on the south coast – and is providing some form of payback for the support he received from Semmens post-Leicester.
In much the same way as Hasenhuttl has developed partnerships on the field, Southampton now have a significant one off it.
“Martin needs a pat on the back because he is the one who stuck by the manager when it would have been easy to say ‘we are going to have a change’,” says Merrington. “Now the manager and chairman are working hand in glove. If you have that, you have a chance.”