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Pulling it back against all odds – A Hasenhüttl inspired turnaround

Football never ceases to amuse us. The Premier League has always managed to throw up interesting stories in the seasons gone by, and this campaign is no exception to the rule. Whether it be Liverpool’s mentality monsters going on a rampage or Chris Wilder’s Sheffield drawing all the plaudits, there is always some project for the neutrals to cheer on. While the club-faithful enjoy watching their players win every possible trophy, a resurgence story has never gone unnoticed in all these years of football. It is even more special when this happens in one of the best leagues in the world. Today we’ll delve into Southampton FC’s roller-coaster 2019/20 Premier League campaign in which they have seemingly climbed up the table just as fast as they went down.  

A Competent Summer

Southampton are a club that always promises its fans an exciting trip to St. Mary’s week in week out even if they don’t exactly compete for trophies. The club backed this culture and its attack-minded manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl, by getting in reinforcements to add to the exciting talents in the club.

A prolific striker in Che Adams and a trickster in Moussa Djenepo were brought in the summer transfer window, to compete with ex-Liverpool striker Danny Ings and pacey winger Nathan Redmond respectively. The club earned the confidence of its fans with the signings and seemed to be headed in the right direction – a place in the table which would help them to compete in Europe.

A young and hungry team that perfectly fits the playing style of its manager – what could possibly go wrong?

The Beginning of the End?

The first few game weeks laid the plot for the rest of the season – they took points off Manchester United and the PL surprise package of the year Sheffield United, but lost to Burnley and Bournemouth. The manager struggled to get the right balance, experimenting with a few different formations and personnel. The midfield failed to protect the defensive line, ball possession was lost at crucial areas and the new signings failed to live up to the expectations.  

The situation only got worse with the fixtures as they played back to back games against Spurs, Chelsea, Wolves, Leicester and Manchester City. 

Southampton 0 – 9 Leicester City

A night to forget for the Saints faithful. The rain came crashing down. Heads dropped as the goals kept going in. The boos echoed around the stadium and by half time, more than half of the crowd had started their journey back home. It seemed as though Jamie Vardy had hosted a party on the field.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 25: Wilfred Ndidi of Leicester City has a shot blocked by Maya Yoshida of Southampton during the Premier League match between Southampton FC and Leicester City at St Mary’s Stadium on October 25, 2019, in Southampton, United Kingdom. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

The night when Leicester matched the record highest away win in the Premier League, was the same night that the Saints fans started to fear the worst. Ralph Hasenhüttl became the bookie’s next favourite to get the sack. 

“Where do we go from here?”, was a question rattling through the heads of all Saints’ fans that night – it seemed as if the fans were done with their manager.

The Tactical Tweak

The beginning of the season saw the manager experimenting with a lot of different formations, most of which had a solid 3 man defense. While on paper, this should help them stay solid at the back, what they experienced was the complete opposite. This was mainly due to the lack of quality in the Wing-back positions. Ryan Bertrand was not a regular starter for a good few opening matches of the season which removed loads of Premier League experience from the defensive line. With Yan Valery, a very young and inexperienced wing-back rotated with Kevin Danso who was brought in, on loan, in the summer, the opponents were quick to identify Southampton’s weakness in the first few minutes of the game.

The keeper, Angus Gunn, who’s last PL match to date was the horrible defeat to Leicester City, showed signs of brilliance but lacked consistency. Surprisingly, Danny Ings, who has been in red hot form over the past 8 gameweeks, was not even in the starting line up on certain occasions.

After the defeat to Leicester City, the manager went back to what worked for him at RB Leipzig –  the 4-2-2-2. His first change, although a little harsh, was bringing back Alex McCarthy to replace Angus Gunn. Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares nailed down the full-back positions while Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek formed the spine of the defensive line. The changes in the back brought out Ralph Hasenhüttl’s quality and experience as he wasted no time experimenting with a group of players who were low on confidence.

LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 26: Ralph Hasenhuttl, Manager of Southampton celebrates victory with Che Adams of Southampton following the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Southampton FC at Stamford Bridge on December 26, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and James Ward-Prowse were asked to sit in front of the defensive line. Højbjerg acted as the marauder in the defense to attack transitions and a dynamic ball winner in preventing the counter-attacks. James Ward-Prowse, the set-piece maestro, pulled the strings, acting as a deep playmaker. The balls that came into the box cried out for the tall players to attack it making them a big threat from set-pieces. Suddenly things were falling into place again.

This solid foundation was perfectly complemented with a pacy and dynamic front four. With Nathan Redmond and Moussa Djenepo playing as wide CAMs, ‘speed’ became the central focus of their attacks. Danny Ings was paired with Shane Long (or) Michael Obafemi and lead the press right from the top and denied the opposition defenders time on the ball to pick a pass.

With such a structure in place, one could argue that the comeback was inevitable. But, without leaders on and off the pitch, nothing is guaranteed to succeed. All the players took responsibility and this resulted in gems being forged everywhere on the pitch. The graft put in was rightfully rewarded as the points started to come in at a steady rate.

Heading in the Right Direction!

Even when the alarm bells were in full sound around St. Mary’s, Ralph Hasenhüttl believed in his ideology and made some bold decisions. Personnel changes were made, and the formation was tweaked. Above all, Hasenhüttl seemed to have gotten into the players. The passion and emotion that he brings to the touchline sparked the beginning of the turn-around.

The fixture turn helped massively as they played teams who were in and around them in the table. With every game, no matter how scrappy it was. The tactical change, of course, was of huge importance, but isn’t a resurgence tale bigger than tactics? This is where the manager and his backroom staff deserve that extra bit of credit. The man-management skills that were on display were of the highest quality.

Hasenhüttl
Southampton’s Austrian manager Ralph Hasenhuttl reacts to their win at the final whistle in the English Premier League football match between Southampton and Tottenham at St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton, southern England on January 1, 2020. – Southampton won the game 1-0. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The wins against Chelsea and Spurs epitomised the basics of football – playing with desire for the badge on the shirt. This has resulted in them lounging at a better position in the table.

However, there is still half a season to play, and if there’s any league in the world where nothing can be taken for granted, it is the Premier League. With only 8 points separating the 9th placed team and the drop zone, the manager, players and fans all know that this tale of resurgence could very quickly be forgotten and buried.


Written by Varun Kumar


 

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