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From humiliation to redemption – How Ralph Hasenhuttl has turned the tables at Southampton
Tune into BT Sport 2HD from 8pm on Thursday to see Ralph Hasenhuttl's Saints in action against Brighton
How Ralph Hasenhuttl has turned the tables at Southampton
It was a result so shocking that the game now commands its own Wikipedia article. On the evening of Friday 25 October with the rain lashing down, Leicester trounced Southampton 9-0 at St Mary’s to record the biggest away win in English top-flight history.
It was a landmark result for Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester revolution as the Foxes briefly flirted with the idea of challenging Liverpool for the league title
But for Ralph Hasenhuttl and Southampton it was the humiliation to end all humiliations. The Austrian, with his side 5-0 and a man down at the interval, had tried to stem the tide by throwing on an extra defender.
The result was four further second-half goals with the ninth scored by Jamie Vardy from the penalty spot in front of a near-empty St Mary’s.
“It was horrible to watch,” Hasenhuttl said after the debacle. “The performance was a disaster and I have to apologise and take 100% of the responsibility.
“I’ve never seen a team act like this, there was no fight for anything.”
It’s the sort of result that gets managers the sack and for a club who’d dismissed three managers in 18 months between June 2017 and December 2018, Southampton demonstrated some newfound restraint by not giving Hasenhuttl the chop.
But unlike Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes, the Saints board saw something in the former RB Leipzig coach that encouraged them to keep the faith.
That faith was repaid with a significant upturn in results around the turn of the year which saw Southampton win seven of their 10 Premier League matches between November 30 and January 21.
Cue Southampton positing yet more faith in their man with a new contract penned in June which will see Hasenhuttl tied to the club until 2024.
It’s no surprise that word came up again when Hasenhuttl discussed his new contract.
“It’s a huge act of faith and I hope that I can live up to it,” the 52-year-old told German magazine Kicker. “I’ve never had a spell at a club like here in autumn when we played like a relegated team.”
On the infamous 9-0 result, he added: “If you survive such a thing professionally, you lose all fears. I told [chairman] Martin Semmens back then that I would sack me now in his position.”
So how has Hasenhuttl turned it around at St Mary’s?
After two further defeats following the Leicester thrashing – to Manchester City and Everton – Hasenhuttl did away with a back three and switched to a four-man defence.
Out went the under-performing Jannik Vestergaard and in came Jack Stephens. His side switched to a 4-3-3 for the next match at the Emirates with main man Danny Ings supported by two wide players – on this occasion Nathan Redmond and Michael Obafemi.
The improvement was instant. Southampton drew 2-2 with the away side only denied victory thanks to a 96th-minute equaliser from Alexandre Lacazette.
Southampton started defending and pressing as a cohesive unit and increased their tempo in attack.
As Hasenhuttl himself reflected: “The defending in every part of the pitch is a completely different one now – there’s belief and we are working together.
“Now when we win the ball we put speed into the transition and play simple and [move the ball] quickly forward.”
Key behind the improvement has been the goalscoring of the irrepressible Ings. The 27-year-old was scoring even when Southampton were struggling but enjoyed a particular purple patch once the Saints switched from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 or, less commonly, a 4-3-3.
The ex-Liverpool forward netted 10 in his next 10 Premier League starts as Southampton lifted from 18th to 12th in the table. Only Vardy and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have scored more goals this season in the division.
Alongside Ings, Redmond is enjoying another consistent season from the wing. The 26-year-old put on his best display of the season against his former club Norwich in his first game back with a goal and a man-of-the-match display.
James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg began to form a consistent central midfield partnership in protecting the back four. Both rank in the top 10 in the Premier League for tackles made.
And in recent outings Stuart Armstrong has come to the fore too with some big displays as a second striker to Ings. It was the Scotsman that netted the opener in Tuesday evening’s draw at in-form Manchester United.
That United result is the latest in a string of positive results for Hasenhuttl’s side - who have been particularly impressive since the restart. Southampton lost just once in six and recorded a victory over Manchester City as well as the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.
Now they welcome Brighton for the short trip to St Mary’s high on confidence and keen to finish the season as strongly as possible. Hasenhuttl, with his side free from relegation worries, can view it as a free hit. Rarely has a Premier League manager come back from the dead quite like it.
Tune into BT Sport 2HD from 8pm on Thursday to see Southampton and Brighton battle it out for south-coast bragging rights.