Eight days on from losing by a single goal at Cardiff, Ralph Hasenhuttl will take charge of his first game at St Mary’s. Arsenal are the visitors and, given how anaemic the performance in Wales was, that should prove a stern test.
Unai Emery’s side are not invulnerable. Hasenhuttl will have noted, for instance, just how often they creaked against Bournemouth three weeks ago. Arsenal won that game, their superior attacking talent eventually told, but Eddie Howe’s forwards were prominent throughout. Of course, their goal that afternoon came from a slick, well-executed counter-attack, but – more generally – they moved possession quickly, neatly and directly, creating plenty of chances for Josh King, Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser to receive the ball in dangerous positions and attack a visiting defence who, despite some improvement, still twitch when exposed to speed and good movement.
Speed and good movement are Hasenhuttl’s core beliefs and his general aim at Southampton is to turn them into the kind of side who can advance quickly up the field with as few touches as possible. Given how stodgy they have often been over the last few years, that should take some time.
One wonders, also, just how adaptable to that purpose this current squad is.
The good news, is that Hasenhuttl’s midfield options suit him well. Between Mario Lemina, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Stuart Armstrong and Oriel Romeu, all of whom started last weekend, the middle rungs of the Austrian’s 4-2-2-2 formation are in good condition. Armstrong, in particular, with his willingness to run from midfield and create an additional attacking option, should prove valuable. Around him, the passing abilities and technique of Lemina and Hojbjerg should certainly help to cut a few lines.
At either end of that unit, there are problems. The inadequacies of the club’s recruiting over recent seasons have manifested most plainly in attack. On arrival, Manolo Gabbiadini promised much, but has since regressed to the periphery, managing just ten Premier League goals since 2016. Charlie Austin is a capable goalscorer, albeit one with minimal use outside the penalty box, and Danny Ings’ virtues must be caveated by his injury history. As a group and within a traditional formation, it’s unlikely that – even by committee – that group could score the goals required for a top-ten finish.
More troublingly, within the context of how Hasenhuttl will want them to play, they collectively lack certain attributes. Watching footage of RB Leipzig during the 2016-17 season, when they finished fourth in the Bundesliga, it’s difficult to find many – even tenuous – parallels. Then, Hasenhuttl enjoyed the dynamic, broad threat of Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen at the top of his formation. Werner was the superior finisher and the better technical footballer, but Poulsen was an ideal foil. While often portrayed solely as a physical forward, his range of flicks and through-balls made him the perfect partner for a more mobile forward, particularly one capable of finding and passing through the cracks in a defensive line.
That was in evidence during Denmark’s most recent Nations League game against Wales; it was Poulsen’s cushioned one-touch pass which sprang Nicolai Jorgensen beyond the home defence to score the game’s first goal. It was also Poulsen who began the move deep in his own half (1.34 in the video below). It may have had nothing to do with Hasenhuttl, but it was still a passage of play straight from his textbook: the south-to-north break, the efficient use of the ball – these are traits which, hopefully, will start to become familiar at St Mary’s in the future. Unfortunately, it’s a goal they couldn’t score at the moment; it’s a facet of attacking play which has been missing from Southampton’s repertoire for a long time.
Hasenhuttl’s first lineup paired Charlie Austin with Nathan Redmond and, while the combination has some theoretical merit, there exists little natural chemistry within it. The former is reactive and opportunistic, not really equipped to build moves. The latter is a good player, blessed with pace and the ability to beat players, but his tangible production is often blighted by hesitation; he rarely runs through on goal, looking more comfortable slowing the play down and cutting in-field from a touchline.
The greatest obstruction of all, though, is that neither is particularly adept at playing one or two-touch football. Austin’s control and general awareness isn’t good enough and Redmond is much more confident with the ball at his feet than he is when passing it. In time, once Danny Ings and Shane Long are both fit, Hasenhuttl will have the capacity to experiment and, potentially, Ings may prove a better option than Austin. Nevertheless, unless it’s an alternative which wildly exceeds expectation, it’s difficult to see it instructing any dramatic progress.
Clearly, it’s an area of the team which needs significant investment. More importantly, it’s an area which requires significant investment in the right sort of player. Not just players who provide the illusion of goal volume, but who marry together and compliment the type of football which the side will be coached to play behind them.
In effect, then, one now traditional Southampton weakness will have to be used to correct another.
The sacking of Mark Hughes was absolutely correct and his departure made the appointment of Hasenhuttl a priority. However, it was a surprise that the decision was made before appointing a new technical director. Les Reed’s own leaving has left a vacuum at the top of the club and, clearly, that needs to be urgently corrected. Not least because Reed was the principal architect of this situation. Very clearly, the harmony between the executive and coaching departments at the club has been disturbed, the consequence being a succession of underwhelming managerial and recruiting decisions which not only seemed suspect in isolation, but also failed to match the coaching strengths, to address long-standing issues, and to correct Southampton’s drift away from their native style.
Hasenhuttl needs time, that’s obvious and a truism applicable to all new appointments. In this particular instance, he also needs the right support. Bluntly, he requires an overarching transfer direction which recognises the deficiencies he’s inherited and systematically cures them over the coming transfer-windows. Unless that happens, progress will be menial. If his coaching definition comes from his team’s ability to retrieve the ball high and to press quickly and accurately, the shortages in his forward line promise to act as a philosophical dilutant unless they’re cured.