The early days of Ralph Hasenhuttl raised hope that Southampton could do more than simply survive, but their start to the season means their ambitions must now be tempered significantly…
Is Ralph Hasenhuttl actually any good?
See, what we’ve done there is use a deliberately inflammatory line to open the article and grab attention. Of course, Ralph Hasenhuttl is any good. His reputation from Ingolstadt and RB Leipzig tells us that he is most certainly any good.
A more sensible question might be: is Ralph Hasenhuttl working at Southampton?
When Hasenhuttl arrived last season, Southampton were a shell of a club, a collection of players infused with the ennui of the Mark Hughes era and heading rapidly for the Championship. They had one win from 15 games and nine points to their name, the sort of total you can almost get by accident.
From the subsequent 23 games Southampton gained 30 points, which extrapolated over the season would have been roughly enough for 11th place. Up until the win over Wolves which, give or take, ensured they would stay in the Premier League, Hasenhuttl’s Saints got the equivalent of an eighth place amount of points.
All of which is, by most standards, any good.
At the moment we are far away from a good performance.
The bad news started pretty much as soon as they secured survival. You can forgive them no wins in the last five games of the season, breathing out and relaxing after a season of strife, but the eight games of this term are a little bit more difficult to explain away. Southampton have lost five of their eight games, only managed a point at home (which was against Manchester United) and are now perilously on the edge of the relegation zone.
Watching Chelsea’s win at St Mary’s on Sunday, it was pretty tricky to work out if Chelsea were good, or Southampton were catastrophically bad. Probably a little of both. But after the game Hasenhuttl had the look of a man who knew there was a smell somewhere in his house, but was having trouble tracking it down.
“We must be very, very honest and true, because otherwise we will lie to ourselves and say we are better than what we played,” he said, a face like the wettest of weekends.
“At the moment, we are not better. We know that we have to have a very, very good performance if we want to take something. But at the moment we are far away from a good performance. This is something that is very disappointing for me.”
It was notable that Hasenhuttl didn’t seem to be specifically talking about just that game, more a general expression of frustration about their form and performances, as if he couldn’t quite work out what was going wrong. The mere results could be excused, as their fixture list has been tough, but it’s the performances that seem to be worrying for Hasenhuttl.
What was perhaps most troubling about the game on Sunday was the second-half: after an opening 45 minutes when they were so well beaten and 3-1 down, you might usually expect Hasenhuttl to inspire change, to make a shrewd tactical switch or inspire his players to offer a little more.
But they were worse after the break than before. In the second half Chelsea might as well have called for their pipe and slippers, so easily did they keep Southampton at bay. As the game drew closer to its conclusion, many home fans shuffled away, not really out of disgust, but it just felt like the hundreds of people heading for the exits knew Southampton wouldn’t score, and everyone realised they had better things to be doing.
So what is going wrong? It’s difficult to put the finger on one single thing: a lack of goals is a problem; a lack of mobility in midfield is another issue; Angus Gunn’s form is a little off; perhaps it is just, as Hasenhuttl also said on Sunday, a confidence issue; perhaps Hasenhuttl is playing a system that only works with players better than the ones he has.
But it’s clear there are significant problems: Hasenhuttl is becoming increasingly angry after games, particularly on Sunday and after the loss at Tottenham, which he regarded as a big missed opportunity against ten men. It could be that his instructions are not being carried out on the pitch, or not being correctly carried out at least. Hence the increasing frustration.
Those early games under Hasenhuttl raised hope, if not perhaps expectations, that this Southampton side could establish themselves in the top half of the table, maybe even challenge for European football. Given the way they have started the season, those ambitions must be parked, and unless things improve significantly then they’ll be looking down rather than up.
For club managers the international break can be a time to sit and think, to have some clear headspace and consider the wider picture, rather than just worrying about the next game. It’s important for everyone, but perhaps this break is most important to Southampton and Hasenhuttl, to figure out what’s wrong and where their season goes from here.
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