Opinion: Last chance saloon beckoning for Hasenhuttl at Southampton?

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04: Head Coach Ralph Hasenhuttl of Southampton during the Premier League match between Southampton and Brighton & Hove Albion at St Mary's Stadium on December 04, 2021 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images)
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04: Head Coach Ralph Hasenhuttl of Southampton during the Premier League match between Southampton and Brighton & Hove Albion at St Mary's Stadium on December 04, 2021 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images) /

Equalisers in the 98th minute rarely go down a treat for supporters of the conceding team. The coveted three points, tantalisingly on display for so long, suddenly so mercilessly taken out of reach at the last.

The aftermath is not pretty, as those who sought momentary salvation from the troubles of daily life, are instead jolted back to painful reality, without the warm and comforting blanket of a win to protect them.

Dejected supporters trudge mournfully home, a funeral march of sorts lamenting the loss of their afternoon. Incandescent with rage, the tactical genius amongst the swathes of people loudly states the obvious changes he would have made. The pessimist decries the end of the season and makes grim predictions of impending relegation too all those who will listen.

Even the wearied old supporter, fifty years a veteran of these crushing afternoons finds it hard to raise more than a tired smile. The “I told you so” brigade stand smugly upon their soap boxes, their inner pain channelled into an evening of provoking responses from those sacrilegious enough to urge moderation.

The damning portrait painted does of course need some perspective to give the viewer real insight. Firstly, this is only football after all, with the applause at grounds around the country in memory of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes a difficult but timely reminder that real life is far crueller than sport.

Ralph Hasenhuttl of Southampton (R) (Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images)
Ralph Hasenhuttl of Southampton (R) (Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images) /

What needs to change for Southampton to become a Hasenhuttl team?

Southampton’s last-minute capitulation to offer their visitors Brighton an unlikely and undeserved point was not out of character, nor indeed will it be the last time it happens. The issue with throwing away points predates Ralph Hasenhuttl’s tenure as Southampton manager, and one suspects it will be an albatross around the neck of future incumbents too.

Ironically, the week started with the positive news that Hasenhüttl has now spent three years in the job at Southampton, a bastion of stability in an otherwise turbulent league, where managers come and go like London buses. There is much to admire about the 54-year-old Austrian, from his affability to his ambition to play intensive, eye-catching football.

Hasenhüttl comes across as a decent man, more interested in the project than the payments, with a sense of integrity and an ample helping of charm. He is markedly different from the dour and bland brand of football most recently seen on and off the pitch with Messrs Hughes, Pellegrino and Puel. There have been notable highs, including a cup run, victories over some of the biggest names in football including Manchester City and Liverpool and for a time at least, a togetherness amongst the supporters.

Yet, with the highs, must surely come the lows and Southampton can boast an unenviable record of lows during Hasenhüttl’s reign. The 9-0 defeats against Leicester and Manchester United are obvious examples, albeit made worse by early red cards in both encounters. Stats were flying around after yesterday’s game indicating that Saints have now lost 71 points from winning positions since Hasenhuttl took over.

Results in recent weeks have been disheartening, even leaving aside the inevitable thumping at Liverpool. The defeat at Norwich was unforgivable, whilst Southampton had opportunities to be ruthless against below par Leicester and Brighton sides this very week. Earlier this season, Saints failed to overcome a distinctly poor Burnley side, whilst also managing to succumb at home to a Wolves side struggling for confidence.

It does not make for pretty reading for a fanbase becoming increasingly frustrated with the way valuable points are being gifted away like presents at Santa’s grotto. The players deserve much of the ire for the unprofessional performances being given, especially for the abject effort against the ten men of Brighton in yesterday’s game.

It is inexcusable that a side winning in relative comfort, should suddenly be put under so much pressure in the final ten minutes by a toothless Brighton side, themselves a man short. For the manager, it was an egregious error to demonstrate such ignorance of the match situation by failing to shore up the midfield and defence. It was certainly not the most auspicious of moments to continue trying to play high risk football.

Goalkeeping errors, poor positioning, lack of leadership on the pitch and the palpable absence of a ruthless streak are to an extent outside of the manager’s control. That said, Southampton performances of late are unerringly predictable; a strong start, often with an early goal, leading to a dominant first half, only to throw away the game in a calamitous second half showing.

There is a failure to react to subtle (and often unsubtle) tweaks made by opposition managers at half time, compounded by the fact that Southampton have no discernible “Plan B” to employ to regain control of a match. For all the enthusiasm on the pitch, the post-match “we go again” posts on social media and the jaunty stats about consecutive assists at home, one fundamental message is abundantly clear – Hasenhuttl and his squad are not learning from these experiences.

Hasenhüttl is a Jekyll and Hyde type character; he is a brilliant coach with an exciting vision for how he wants to play, who sets his team up to be hard to play against (as characterised by strong first half showings). On the other hand, he is often an inept, naive, and stubborn manager, who fails to counter changes made by opposing numbers and leaves substitutions painfully late.

Hasenhüttl has developed no fall-back plan for games where leads need preserving, instead showing a blind faith to his favoured tactics of high pressing and playing out from the back. He needs a better assistant manager, a Rohl-esque sidekick who will advise him of the follies of certain decisions and advocate pragmatism.

Saints lack a streetwise, sensible style of play for situations where games need to be closed out. In dire times of need, there is a noticeable vacuum of leadership on and off the pitch. The years of Van Dijk, Fonte, Hammond, Lundekvam etc are long gone, natural born leaders who command respect on the pitch and demand unwavering effort from their troops.

It would be interesting to pose a question to the Southampton fan base regarding the last time they felt they witnessed a comfortable victory. There have been positive performances this season but for all the huff and puff, the victories over Leeds, Watford and Aston Villa were by a mere one goal margin. Better sides would have punished Southampton on all three occasions.

The Southampton defence does seem marginally more secure following the emergence of Salisu, coupled with the exciting Livramento and the lively Walker Peters. In the name of fairness, it should also be said that Lyanco showed promise yesterday, whilst Bednarek, Perraud and Stephens are reasonably reliable options at this level.

Nevertheless, Southampton are devoid of creativity in the middle, with talisman Ward-Prowse enduring one of his worst seasons that most supporters will be able to recall. His golden touch at set pieces has faded like a dying star, whilst his lapses in concentration are actively leading to opportunities for opposition forwards.

The enforced absence of Stuart Armstrong has not helped Hasenhüttl; indeed, Southampton have not won a league game without his participation since 4th December 2019 (source: Total Saints Podcast).  This staggering statistic underlines the importance of a having a creative number 10 in the team, someone who can play in between the lines and find pockets of space in the attacking third.

Armstrong is also a valuable ball carrier in a squad devoid of players willing to run directly at defences. With exception of the full backs who enjoy marauding forward, only Broja shows any inclination to run at players directly with the intent of committing them. Possibly it is a fear of failure, the risk that the demanding crowd will condemn unsuccessful take-ons but to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, surely it is better if the Saints players fail, they at least fail while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

One can rightly make the argument that Hasenhüttl cannot be held responsible for the injuries of Armstrong but equally, there have been numerous opportunities for Saints to bring another creative central midfielder. Likewise, the goalkeeping situation has now reached a head, with Forster and McCarthy presumed unfit for the coming weeks following knocks sustained.

The latter incurred the wrath of his manager for failing to notify the bench yesterday of his struggles with a suspected hamstring injury. The next alternative is Harry Lewis, yet to play a league game and from limited displays at youth level, unlikely to set the world alight. Despite the understandable reservations about McCarthy, it was grossly unfair of Hasenhüttl to lay blame for yesterday’s result at his goalkeeper’s door.

In Hasenhüttl’s defence, he has a limited budget to work with in the light of owner Gao Jisheng’s unwillingness to invest in the club. Enforced sales of players such as Ings, along with the “one in, one out” policy means that there is a glass ceiling to Southampton’s ambition in the current climate. Sugar daddy owners are hard to find and for all the clamour for a similar situation to Newcastle’s recent Saudi buyout, Southampton fans must consider whether they are willing to sell their souls for a Faustian crack at progress.

In some ways, Hasenhüttl is the right manager at the wrong time for Southampton. With investment behind him, one suspects that he could recruit better quality players capable of playing in his preferred system. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Southampton will sack Hasenhuttl any time soon – for starters, this would mean substantial compensation packages for him and his staff.

However, make no mistake, this is last chance saloon territory for Hasenhüttl in terms of keeping supporters on side. Defeat against Brentford in two weeks could well be the end of support, even from the more moderate elements. The argument surrounding “well, who would you bring in instead?” only stacks up to an extent, with managers such as Lucien Favre, Ruben Amorim or even Jesse Marsch well worth casting an eye over.

Perhaps the Southampton board will wait until new investment before they look to change the managerial situation. There may be a feeling that Hasenhüttl is worth preserving with, especially if new ownership brings transfer funds at his disposal. In the meantime, if Southampton and their manager fail to wisen up quickly, there is a very real chance of relegation this season. If that happens, no amount of wisecracks about washing machines will soften that blow.

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