Southampton are about to run. Ralph Hasenhuttl oversaw their 3-1 defeat to Tottenham and by the tone of the remarks made when he was officially unveiled the next day, he didn’t like what he saw. There are plenty of reasons to like the appointment and to believe that Hasenhuttl, with his vision for how the game should be played, is precisely what Southampton need. Having endured a sustained period of ideological poverty, the Austrian’s high-pressing, quick-breaking philosophy should finally restore some lost identity.
Comparisons with Mauricio Pochettino are unavoidable, so are the parallels with Jurgen Klopp. Within those references lies a caveat: both are now high priests of their tactical churches, but both endured difficult starts to Premier League life. Imparting their message was one challenge, conditioning their players to follow it was quite another. In each case, Klopp and Pochettino had both taken charge of teams superior to the Southampton sude inherited by Hasenhuttl and, even then, the confusion which followed took more than a few weeks to clear.
The Austrian has the disadvantage of taking charge of a listing club. He must also cure their bad habits during the busiest part of the fixture list, with the benefit of only a few training few sessions and with none of the trial-and-error leeway of the summer. He and they must learn on the job and that process began on Saturday, in a cold, wet and windy Cardiff, and in opposition to Neil Warnock’s rough and tumble upstarts.
Upstarts, though, who have now won their last three games at home. Warnock’s side might not be overly-blessed with talent, but recent weeks have shown their depth of spirit and just how capable of exposing fragility they are. Wolves broke here, Brighton too; Hasenhuttl has been in charge for just two days, so a draw before kick off – given what it would suggest about his side’s capacity to grind – would have been a welcome result. He didn’t get it. Callum Paterson’s goal 16 minutes from time was enough to condemn Southampton to defeat and to deny their new head-coach any quick bounce.
New appointments come with expectations in the transfer market and, surely, the same will be true at Southampton. After all, the RB Leipzig squad Hasenhuttl left behind in 2018 were not only more talented, but also more technically attuned to his style of play. There is no Timo Werner or Bruma at St Mary’s, nor a Yussuf Poulsen, Emil Forsberg or Marcel Sabitzer. Nevertheless, there are patches of fertile ground to work with. Mario Lemina and Oriol Romeu are two of the better holding players in the Premier League and both have been installed at the base of this new midfield. Ahead of them, Stuart Armstrong and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg have been stacked as a second “two”, pushing up and back as circumstances dictate. At the top of the formation, Charlie Austin started slightly in front of Nathan Redmond.
The aim is flexibility – to fan out, press and restrict without the ball, but to snap forward in numbers with it. Like Klopp and like Pochettino, Hasenhuttl wants quick, direct attacking patterns and for progress to come via as few touches of the ball as possible. Given how Southampton have played over the past few years, with that glacial slowness and ultra caution, he has quite a task on his hands.
The size of which was shown on Saturday. Collective energy was up and the many points and conversations on the field betrayed a side determined to follow their new instructions. The intent was obviously there, even if the execution and stability weren’t. Inside 20 minutes, Cardiff had mined three golden opportunities to score, failing to take any of them but managing to spook a side who remain noticeably on edge. Command of the new shape remains elusive and will do for some time, and that was particularly evident in wide areas. Josh Murphy had great joy against Yan Valery on the right, while Matt Targett struggled to contain the bullish Nathaniel Mendez-Laing on the left. Neither full-back is experienced, Valery remains a novice at this level, but both players were left exposed by the confusion in front of them.
There wasn’t much in response. A few neat exchanges between Redmond and Austin, one excellent chance for Lemina (which he sliced gently over) and a flurry of corners was about the extent of it.
As Cardiff gradually took more control of the game, Southampton fell back into old habits. Hasenhuttl’s instructions were visible only in isolated moments – in the odd vertical pass and quick one-two, or the occasional burst of energy in pursuit pf the ball. For the most part, this was like watching Hughes’ team, or Pellegrino’s before him: every attacking move had a half-life, during which it would flicker with vague promise before succumbing to a hesitation or pointless lay-off.
Ironically, it was actually Cardiff who showed penetration that Southampton are now seeking. Despite their billing as a high-grafting side of limited means, they never seemed more than two or three passes away from splitting their visitors open. And they also brought the more eager press, which was ultimately the source of the game’s only goal: Jannick Vesteergard dallied on the ball, Callum Paterson shoved him aside, ran through and cut a bobbled finish across Alex McCarthy. It was a goal Cardiff had worked and worked for, it was one which should have come much sooner in the game, but it was still an advantage that they earned and which, troublingly for Hasenhuttl, they never really looked like losing.
But then, this is the way of things. The Austrian spoke of the challenge he was embracing when he was presented to the media and talked of the risk he’s taking by being here. He’s right. As much belief as he may have in his methods, he surely realises that converting this side into one in his own image will come with a time-lag. If he doesn’t realise, then history is there to prompt him: with this kind of coach and this style of football, it nearly always gets worse before it gets better. The ideas are often too different for the inherited players and not all of them adapt at the same rate. In this period – typically – chaos reigns and nothing makes sense. There are no patterns to admire, no green shoots to offer reassurance.
“We would either win or we’d learn. Today, we learned”
This promises to be the most trying period for the supporters. For weeks, there will be little indication of where the club is going and whether this has been the right appointment. For the moment, they’re required to have blind faith. Eventually, something substantial should take root. Hasenhuttl seems fully aware of the challenges ahead. He was pragmatic after the game. Downcast, but realistic. He was enthused by the start his side had made in both halves, but critical of how often they had reverted to type with their passing. The effort was fine, the result was not.
“It must be more forward”.
A comment which transcends limited English. Yes, Southampton must be more aggressive and, right now, comfort is to be taken in knowing that they have a head-coach absolutely determined that they should be so. Of note, also, was his failure to take the penalty bait. While his predecessor might have dwelt on Jon Moss’s refusal to award Stuart Armstrong a penalty (replays are inconclusive), he slapped the question back, dismissing the incident as just part of the game. A small virtue but a significant one, because while Southampton’s play has been in decline for a while, so too have their levels of accountability. This is a group of players who, you suspect, have been too quick to shift blame in the past and that can’t end quickly enough. Hasenhuttl should help in that regard, too, as he doesn’t seem likely to entertain soft excuses.
So here begins the long climb back. The useless will be purged and the troublesome will have to be discarded. Once that happens and some of these ideas take seed, Southampton might just put a foot on the ladder.