Taking over from Mark Hughes mid-season with the club staring at relegation, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s welcome to the Premier League was more a matter of securing Southampton’s present than building for their future.
Having won just one game all season previously, Hasenhuttl dragged Southampton out of the relegation zone, finishing 5 points clear in 16th place.
This turnaround meant Saints fans came into this season with high hopes, only to have them dashed with another horrific start to the season. They got just two wins from thirteen games, hitting rock bottom with a 9-0 loss at home to Leicester City.
Rather than doing what most clubs would do in this situation and simply starting again with a new manager, Southampton stuck by Hasenhuttl. The Austrian repaid that faith by, once again, completely turning Southampton’s season around. Whereas the season before he pulled them out of their freefall into the Championship, this year he’s managed to pull them up into the top half of the table, into the hunt for a Europa League spot.
So how did he manage it?
Nicknamed “The Alpine Klopp”, Hasenhuttl shares much in common with the generation of German coaches who broke through and grabbed attentions in the 2010s.
He created teams “that no one liked to play against”. Built on heavy pressing and quick transitions, his teams worked hard, ran tirelessly and broke forward to score “in ten seconds”.
“Pressing. Hunting. Be hungry. When you have the ball, find a quick decision, quick transition to the front. It’s about being emotional, being full of passion. Also, keep the tempo on a high level and don’t slow down the game. That’s what I think the people want to see.”
These methods dragged Ingolstadt to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history and kept them there. This achievement granted him an opportunity at a more ambitious club, taking over at newly-promoted RB Leipzig. Despite working with a thin squad, Hasenhuttl took the East Germans to second place in his first season, then sixth in his second.
Released from his contract in the summer of 2018 after Leipzig announced Julian Nagelsmann would be taking over for the 2019-2020 season, by December Hasenhuttl was ready to dip his toes into the English game.
Rescuing Southampton from relegation by installing a strong 3-5-2 formation, fans were excited to see what Hasenhuttl could do when given a pre-season to prepare for his first full year in charge. It went disastrously.
Making few changes to the squad over the summer, Hasenhuttl instead focussed on trying to make his existing set of players more flexible tactically. “We have four different shapes,” Hasenhuttl explained in pre-season. “We can always switch very quickly. Last year in a lot of games we started with 4-2-2-2 and switched to 5-2-3. The basics in every shape are the same.”
The start of this season saw Southampton switch between numerous different formations, an ever-changing eleven often lining up out of their natural positions. While this allowed the Saints to adapt to their opponents, it meant what was expected of the players was constantly changing. In one of Hasenhuttl’s first interviews at the club, he spoke of “every guy knows what to do and will do everything he can to show this on the pitch” but Southampton’s players didn’t look like they knew what to do, and they were showing that on the pitch.
“I think that I also made mistakes at that moment,” Hasenhuttl reflects. “And the most important thing for a manager is to see it clear, to be honest. I always spoke about being honest to yourself, and take the responsibility, and think about what you have done wrong, maybe. I think we found the things that we have to turn, and if you are that clear to yourself, that means you can be clear to the other guys, because you are part of it.”
Since then, Hasenhuttl has simplified his tactics, returning to the 4-2-2-2 formation he used to great success at RB Leipzig with a more settled side. After getting just two wins in their opening thirteen games, Southampton have since picked up seven in their last twelve, including wins over Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City.
The majority of Hasenhuttl’s focus is on how Southampton play without the ball.
“We want to be disgusting to play against,” he says. “The game doesn’t start when we have the ball. Our game starts when the opponent has the ball.
“I was always a little bit compared to Jurgen [Klopp] because my core of working is working against the ball. Pep Guardiola has a fantastic play against the ball. They are often reduced to ball possession but nobody sees that he has a very good game against the ball. Everybody tries to go his own way and I am very convinced about what we are doing.”
Southampton don’t simply sit back and soak up pressure though. They push forward to win the ball back and force mistakes by the opposition. Discussing pressing triggers, Hasenhuttl said: “It can be a long pass. It takes a long time for the ball to reach the next player.
“This is the time we can move to the ball, put pressure on the guy who gets it. If we do it together and have the right distances between the players, we have a big chance to win the ball in areas where we can have an overload of players.
“That’s the philosophy I am focusing on. The best playmaker is the ball winner. Statistically, the chance of creating a goal is higher within 10 seconds of winning the ball.”
Southampton’s set-up will be familiar to anyone who watched Hasenhuttl’s Leipzig. As a general rule of thumb, Southampton don’t press high up the pitch but instead drop off into a narrow 4-4-2 mid-block. This makes it harder for the opposition to simply hit it long to take advantage of the space left behind the defensive line, as the defenders are already starting fairly deep, and also leaves the defence well-protected.
Sitting off also encourages the opposition to play short to the defenders and come forward with the ball. Given Southampton want to be able to attack quickly upon recovering the ball, it would be no good forcing the opposition into going long as that would mean winning back the ball in Southampton’s half. Southampton instead try to bait the opposition into passing out from the back and pushing men forward, then pouncing to win the ball back and breaking quickly into the space left behind the backline by the opposition moving up the pitch.
Protecting the centre, Southampton wait on specific triggers to begin their pressing. One is passes between the centre-backs: when one of the centre-backs shapes to pass to the other, one of the strikers will push up to press the receiving centre-back, while his strike partner continues to hover near the deepest midfielder. Typically, the centre-back will return the ball to the other centre-back, which triggers the pressure of the second striker. He will close down the centre-back while blocking the pass into the midfielder behind him while the return pass back across is cut out by the other striker.
Under pressure and with few passing options, the centre-back is likely to make a mistake putting Southampton clean through on goal. Alternatively, they tend to do three things: they hit the ball long, which is generally easy for Southampton to deal with; they pass it back to the goalkeeper, which either starts the move again, with the strikers dropping off into a mid-block, or gets one of the strikers closing down the goalkeeper, curving his run to block the pass into the centre-back, usually resulting in another long ball forward; they pass wide to the full-back.
The pass wide to the full-back is another trigger. This doesn’t have to be preceded by the passes between the centre-backs – if the goalkeeper or centre-back chooses to pass straight out to their full-back without those combinations then the Southampton winger will press the full-back as his teammates move to isolate him. The striker blocks the pass inside to the centre-back, the midfielder steps up to get tight to the midfielder to discourage the pass inside, while the full-back will stay close to the back of the opposition winger. If the full-back attempts a pass or tries to dribble past the winger then Southampton’s players are in good positions to nick the ball back and spring forward on the attack.
There are some issues with this press though. Firstly, the midfielder’s tendency to move up and get tight to his opposite number is excellent at cutting off an easy pass inside, but it also usually leaves space in front of the defence for another player to run or drop off into, forcing a midfielder across or a defender to step up out of the backline to cover.
Secondly, the full-back getting tight to the opposition winger stops the easy pass down the line, however if that winger drops deep then there tends to be a lot of space left behind the full-back for another attacker to exploit. An opposition winger could simply drop deep, pulling the full-back up the pitch, so that the full-back can dink a ball in behind to an attacker drifting wide, requiring a centre-back to come across and cover.
The press has struggled when coming up against a back three. Although they lost, Chelsea often managed to pass around Southampton’s pressure, while Liverpool had Fabinho drop into the backline to outnumber Southampton’s strikers. With Hasenhuttl’s man-orientated system, Nathan Redmond is required to come forward so the frontline can match up three-against-three, however he doesn’t do a very good job of curving his run to block the pass out to the full-back, making it easy for the opposition to find a free man.
If this became a more consistent problem for Southampton it would be an easy fix though, simply spending some time in training ensuring Redmond knows to block the passing angle into the full-back when closing down the centre-back.
Fortunately for Southampton, Hasenhuttl hasn’t translated across all the methods from his time at Leipzig. The East German side had a tendency of flying into tackles, which could stop an opposition attack dead, but also frequently resulted in a player missing their challenge, forcing a teammate into covering for them, who would then storm across and miss their challenge too, continuing the cycle. Leipzig had a comical habit of turning manageable situations into them being outnumbered because their defenders couldn’t resist going in for an unnecessary tackle, earning plenty of bookings in the process.
Southampton are more patient though, holding their position to slow down the opposition and give their teammates the chance to track back when caught out. Generally keeping five or six players back, they rarely get caught short, while their attackers mostly work hard to track back.
They also aren’t adverse to gamesmanship, frequently making tactical fouls to break up opposition attacks and stop breakaways before they can develop into something more dangerous.
This is good for Southampton because their defenders probably wouldn’t have the individual quality to deal with being outnumbered.
Ryan Bertrand is the best of the bunch. Although better known for his forays forward, the left-back is a very good defender. He’s quick and has good footwork, allowing him make up any lost ground or rush out to meet a winger, however he’s not reliant on his pace. He takes up good positions and is live to threats, and, while he gets out to meet wingers quickly, he doesn’t go jumping into challenges, instead holding his position to usher them out of play or block the cross. He isn’t flashy but wouldn’t look out of place at any of the top sides in the league.
Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens have made up the centre-back partnership during Southampton’s revival. Bednarek is big and strong, often able to win headers without having to jump, and his lanky frame allows him to poke a leg out and prod the ball away when attackers think they have it out of his range. This frame does make him seem a little awkward, but he copes with it well, checking his surroundings and adjusting accordingly, while also showing decent footwork so he’s not too slow to turn.
Stephens has decent all-round ability. Not as strong or good in the air as Bednarek but strong enough for the Premier League, he’s also no slouch without being particularly fast either. Despite this, he can sometimes be a bit dozy. Although he takes up good positions, he can sometimes be slow to retreat back into them if he’s drawn upfield for a header or tackle, while it’s rare to see him check his shoulders, meaning it can be easy for an opponent to catch him unaware with a run behind him.
It’s a decent enough pairing but probably underwhelming for Southampton fans who have become accustomed to watching the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Toby Alderweireld, Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren in recent years.
With Maya Yoshida now out on loan, Jannik Vestergaard is the main back-up for the two and a significant downgrade. He’s slow and bizarrely terrible in the air despite standing at 6ft 6.
Cedric Soares was first-choice at right back but has since gone on loan to Arsenal with his contract up in the summer. He was another solid if unspectacular defender, albeit with a tendency to stay too far from his man in one-on-ones. Typically for one-on-ones, the defender wants to be within the distance to touch their opponent with an outstretched arm, but Soares was often two or three times this distance away. This gave his opponents the space to swing in a cross or pick out a pass and, while on the face of it it seemed to deny them the space to attack behind him, opposition wingers were given the time on the ball to properly control it, enabling them to dribble past him.
Kyle Walker-Peters was brought in on loan and remains something of an unknown quantity. He’s clearly talented yet has just twelve Premier League appearances to his name, so it remains a mystery as to whether he can make the step up to senior football successfully. Likewise Hasenhuttl gave chances to young Yan Valery last season, however, while promising, he has a lot to learn to become a reliable defender.
James Ward-Prowse has so far filled in at right-back against Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur since Soares’ exit, as well as earlier in the season, and didn’t look at all out of place.
Behind them, Angus Gunn was dropped due to his poor form. He wasn’t making high profile mistakes, but was letting in preventable goals, struggling to deal with low shots and often falling backwards. He was replaced by Alex McCarthy, who is a good shot-stopper but rarely commands his box and can sometimes be caught out positionally.
While there’s plenty that could be improved upon in the backline, the midfield pairing ahead of them do an excellent job at protecting the defence.
Ward-Prowse could easily be moved out to right back permanently but that would mean moving him away from the centre where he’s been superb. Brought through as an attacking midfielder with a penchant for scoring free-kicks, the hype that followed all of Southampton’s prospects as they broke through into the first team never resulted in a transfer for Ward-Prowse, allowing Southampton to reap the benefits of his development.
“With Prowsey, he is a fantastic football player but against the ball he was not sharp enough [when I arrived],” says Hasenhuttl. “He is physically unbelievably good. He can play three games a week, 90 minutes, without a problem. I am very happy there were no rumours about him this summer. A player like him, for a top-six club in England, is always interesting.”
Previously seen as a bit soft, Ward-Prowse is coming into his physical prime and doesn’t find himself easily outmuscled in his deeper position. He’s an irritant to the opposition, scampering around and giving his opponents no space to breath as he follows them and tries to either win the ball back or slow them down with niggling challenges. Although rarely going to ground, he’s capable of thumping tackles when called upon.
Like Ward-Prowse, Pierre Emile Hojbjerg emerged with a lot of expectation at Bayern Munich, touted as the next Sergio Busquets when playing under Pep Guardiola. Finding it difficult to find playing time at the German giants, the Dane left for Southampton, where he is coming into his own. Big and athletic, he has the mobility to cover the ground in front of the defence alongside Ward-Prowse and the physicality to go around barging anyone who gets close to him off the ball. He had a tendency to leap into tackles at Bayern, yet, while he has matured, Hasenhuttl’s system rewards this behaviour more than previous managers’ did.
Somehow coming through La Masia yet being the opposite you would expect from a Barcelona player, Oriol Romeu is a big bruiser capable of flattening opponents without even trying. Despite being bulky, he remains mobile and can easily slot into Ward-Prowse or Hojbjerg’s spot in midfield without Southampton losing anything defensively.
Another difference from Hasenhuttl’s Leipzig is that Southampton have little in the way of a more patient build-up. Despite both of them being good on the ball, Ward-Prowse and Hojbjerg don’t move to receive the ball in midfield, instead staying close together. Rather than moving away from opponents, they will often move towards them, aiming to block them off as they move to press the centre-backs.
Southampton also do this at throw-ins, having a teammate step in between a Southampton player and his marker as he runs towards the ball. Although technically a foul, it’s not enough for referees to award the opposition a free-kick, allowing the Southampton player to lose his marker and receive the ball in space.
Instead of trying to pass short through the midfield, Southampton look to hit the forwards early. Bednarek isn’t the most technically gifted of players but he does have an eye for a pass when given the chance, however Stephens is the better of the two. He can not only pick out a long ball over the top, but will push forward with the ball and try to slide a through ball into the attackers between the lines, allowing them to turn and run at the opposition defence.
For the most part, Southampton’s attacks are more about trying to force turnovers in dangerous areas than actually working the ball forward. One striker will go long and look to compete for headers, the other will come a little shorter and look to win the second ball or knockdowns, while the two wingers will tuck inside to support him. Behind them, the double pivot and usually one of the full-backs tucking inside are there to quickly pressure the opposition if they win the second ball.
This narrow positioning of their players makes it hard for Southampton to pass the ball forward out of defence but it puts them in an excellent position to immediately swarm the opposition and win it back in a higher area, surrounding them from multiple angles. Southampton either win the initial long ball forward, putting them straight through on goal, or they compete from a strong position for the second ball, which, if they win, they then immediately attack the opposition backline with their four forwards.
This method of play requires attackers who are hard-working and live to the bouncing ball, good in tight spaces and who can spring into attack quickly. Danny Ings has obviously caught attention for his goalscoring exploits, recovering from the anterior cruciate ligament tears in each knee that ruined his Liverpool career, yet he actually tends to play as the striker coming shorter rather than leading the line.
Despite not being particularly tall, Shane Long is superb in the air, challenging even the biggest of centre-backs, so it’s he who Southampton aim for with their long balls. Likewise, young Michael Obafemi’s pace makes him a danger running in behind, forcing opposition defences into dropping off.
With them occupying the centre-backs, there’s space in between the lines for Ings to pick up the ball and run at the backline. He keeps the ball very close to him when dribbling despite moving at a high speed, while his ability to change direction quickly make him a nightmare for defenders.
Che Adams also plays off the frontman and has performed well despite his lack of goals. He’s selfless in his link-up play and also shows the skills that would make it possible for him to play as the target man, yet he does look a touch slower than his teammates (in terms of thinking and taking touches, not sprint speed) and whether or not he will be given the opportunity to acclimatise to the higher pace of the Premier League when his direct rival for a position is Ings is doubtful.
The wingers switch between staying out by the full-backs and tucking in very central to pick up the ball in between the lines, but their main purpose remains the same regardless of position: picking up the ball and running at the defence.
Nathan Redmond looks a new man under Hasenhuttl. His decision-making is still imperfect, but it has improved, enabling him to make better use of his pace and dribbling ability as he flusters defenders and gets them back-pedalling. Like Ings, the ball rarely strays far from his feet yet he moves at an incredible pace.
Both very raw, Moussa Djenepo offers game-changing direct attacking while Sofiane Boufal can make a mockery of defenders with his dribbling.
There’s little complicated about Southampton’s attacking, however it is undoubtedly effective. They hit a long ball forward then look to surround the second ball, immediately breaking forward with four extremely quick attackers if they win it. Done right, the opposition backline goes from having to defend against a simple long ball to being overwhelmed as the man on the ball runs at them and three of his teammates try to race in behind them.
Although Ward-Prowse and Hojbjerg are rarely involved in the build-up, they remain key to Southampton’s attacks due to how quickly they move the ball forward. A long ball forward could be headed away and they can spin and ping it to the forwards on the volley or burst forward with it.
Romeu is excellent at shielding the ball and his Barcelona education is clear to see, constantly checking his surroundings and using body feints to manipulate the opposition, however those things are less useful in Hasenhuttl’s style of play – there’s no need for body feints when you are expected to just turn and spray the ball forward immediately. Romeu isn’t really capable of that in the way Ward-Prowse and Hojbjerg are.
The problem for Southampton comes when opposition defences can deal with this. The quick dribbling of the attackers is dangerous but there’s also little in the way of tricky movement or passes between them, so shut down the dribbling and a lot of the time you have shut down Southampton’s attack.
Stuart Armstrong is notable for his willingness to actually link the play, stopping Southampton’s attack from just being four men in a line waiting for the ball so they can sprint into a one-on-one. He has a tendency to fade towards the end of matches though and, although a good passer, he’s unlikely to provide the types of through balls Emil Forsberg did at Leipzig or Dusan Tadic was capable of.
If the opposition are able to consistently win the second balls, then Southampton don’t offer much of an alternative. As mentioned before, they set up very narrowly, however they will often leave one full-back in space on the complete opposite side to all his teammates to switch play. Soares’ delivery wasn’t great however Bertrand is excellent going forward, able to beat his man with a quick burst of pace or whip in a cross. The problem with this method of attacking though is that there isn’t much variety to Southampton’s attacking runs. The attackers will generally just flood the box to provide a numerical threat, but there’s generally no one waiting near the edge of the box to change the angle, making it easy for the opposition to just line up along the six-yard box and defend the cross.
Hasenhuttl has put together a good side but there are clear weaknesses in personnel and limitations in strategy that will need to be worked on if Southampton are going to make the next step into challenging for European places.
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