When news broke Southampton were parting company with the majority of their first-team backroom staff over the summer, many logically concluded manager Ralph Hasenhuttl would follow suit.
But the new-look Southampton hierarchy continued to place their faith in the Austrian, with members of his coaching team instead suffering the consequences of last season’s damaging drop-off.
Saints’ woeful slump from March to May meant they finished the season 15th in the table, with their lowest points total in three years. Hardly a glowing recommendation for Hasenhuttl to remain in charge.
Nevertheless, there was some method to the madness. Despite a downturn in results on the pitch, off-field the Southampton project was beginning to gather pace. Back in January, the club confirmed a deal which saw Sport Republic, a London-based investment firm in the sports and entertainment industry, acquire a controlling stake at St Mary’s.
The takeover brought an end to the majority ownership of Gao Jisheng, a Chinese businessman, under whose tenure Southampton ran on a model of self-sustainability whereby any funds generated from player sales could in turn be used to acquire new players. It had significant limitations.
Under the leadership and guidance of new owners willing to part with cash, however, Hasenhuttl was afforded the chance to build a playing squad capable of competing in the Premier League on a consistent basis – during the recent summer window Southampton spent in the region of £70m on new signings.
Southampton’s summer business
Duje Caleta-Car — Marseille
Ainsley Maitland-Niles — Arsenal
Samuel Edozie — Manchester City
Sekou Mara — Bordeaux
Joe Aribo — Rangers
Romeo Lavia — Manchester City
Armel Bella-Kotchap — VfL Bochum
Mateusz Lis — Altay SK
Gavin Bazunu — Man City
Hasenhuttl’s solace, and perhaps what saved his job last term, was that Saints had never really looked like a relegation-threatened side despite considerable financial restraints. At times performances resembled relegation fodder – they lost 10 of their final 13 Premier League clashes in 2021-22 – but somehow they were never in danger of dropping out of the division.
Hasenhuttl’s strength was an ability to galvanise fans without necessarily delivering consistent results.
However, with much-needed investment forthcoming over the summer months it looked as if he would be given time to rectify Saints’ declining fortunes. Eight of the first-team playing squad departed – five permanently, three in loan deals – while Staplewood Campus welcomed nine new additions to the fold.
Quite the change from the previous regime. Hasenhuttl assured fans they would “love what they see” when Saints engaged in their 11th consecutive campaign as a Premier League club. But such promise, aside from perhaps victory over Chelsea in late August, has failed to materialise.
“This is a group that is now absolutely driven to be successful,” the manager insisted back in early September. Two listless 1-0 defeats followed that proclamation, with Sky Sports’ Jeff Stelling calling their loss to Aston Villa “up there with the worst ever Premier League games”. They then suffered at the hands of Everton, Man City, Crystal Palace and most recently Newcastle – the final straw.
Surely nothing could surpass the anguish and torment felt after a 9-0 home loss to Leicester City on a stormy night back in October 2019? Or the dismantling at the hands of Manchester United by the same scoreline the following season.
Yet Saints’ latest stretch of results are marginally more exposing, suggesting that a youthful, inexperienced side which has undergone considerable summer surgery is perhaps even more fragile than the teams that preceded it. Hasenhuttl described his side as “horrible to watch” against Villa in mid-September. Nothing if not honest. “We’ve not done enough,” he conceded following their latest thrashing at the hands of Newcastle.
Southampton have fielded the youngest side by average age (24 years and 138 days) of any this season and it has failed to pay off. Pinning hopes on teenage breakout talent can only get a team so far, with high sell-on value of little use in the here and now, particularly when fighting a relegation battle. Where once stood bravery now stands doubt.
Southampton have kept just one clean sheet across their last 13 Premier League matches at St Mary’s, conceding 26 goals across this stretch.
Journeying back further, in their last 25 league outings (since the start of March) they have taken the fewest points (17) and won the fewest games (four) of any ever-present team.
When asked after the Newcastle defeat whether he saw a route out of Saints’ current downturn, Hasenhuttl replied: “No…not at the moment.”
An admission even more damning than a 9-0 horror show in your own back yard.
Things had become stale, helped little by a perceived lack of communication and a string of confusing tactical decisions that had reportedly put strain on certain relationships. The manager’s energetic touchline behaviour, which once endeared him to fans, had been wearing thin.
Players were supposedly left ‘surprised’ Hasenhuttl was not shown the exit door prior to the start of the new campaign, amid murmurings of dressing room unrest and discontent. Such rumours were quickly dispelled by the 55-year-old earlier in the season but where there is smoke there is often fire.
An appetite for a switch at the helm has also permeated the club’s board in recent weeks, although there was a desire to hold fire until the World Cup break. Unable to overlook a disappointing run of results against teams that traditionally surround Southampton in the table, the search for a new manager will now begin slightly earlier than originally scheduled.
After all, patience is not often a virtue extended to those who occupy managerial hotseats. Quite the opposite. Hasenhuttl was the league’s fourth longest-serving manager, behind Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Frank. Given the tight clasp on the purse-strings on the south coast, that feat alone is quite remarkable. St Mary’s, famed for its position overlooking the city ferry port, has been commendably kept afloat with very few life rafts.
Besides, Hasenhuttl has previously divulged a desire to quit the management game before becoming out-dated. Back in August, in an interview with German publication Kicker, he said: “Hopefully, it will be five-and-a-half years here, that’s a long time in modern football, and then that’s probably it.”
Perhaps the former RB Leipzig coach had not quite reached his desired end, but he is not far off. Moments of despair, such as that publicly felt in 2019 vs Leicester and 2021 vs Man United, were indeed interspersed with fonder memories, albeit brief.
Hasenhuttl sinking emotionally to his knees on the touchline after beating Liverpool in early 2021 was a particular standout.
But one-off results do not trump consistency in Premier League circles. Southampton have to be realistic about their desire to stay in the league or risk an ill-fated drop.
Needless to say, whoever takes over from Hasenhuttl has their work cut out at both ends of the pitch. A team that once danced merrily in the shadows of the Premier League’s elite – circa 2014-15 and 2015-16 – is now one languishing precariously ever closer to the Championship.
Southampton vs Sheffield Wednesday, Carabao Cup – Wednesday November 9; kick-off 7.45pm
Liverpool vs Southampton, Premier League – Saturday November 12; kick-off 3pm
Southampton vs Brighton, Premier League – Monday December 26; kick-off 3pm
Fulham vs Southampton, Premier League – Saturday December 31; kick-off 3pm
Southampton vs Nottingham Forest, Premier League – Wednesday January 4: kick-off 7.30pm
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