Before Southampton appointed Ralph Hasenhuttl as the club’s new first-team manager, they had amassed a total of nine points from 14 games this season.
Mark Hughes saw his time at St Mary’s Stadium brought to an end at the start of December, with Hasenhuttl almost immediately arriving as the Welshman’s replacement.
Boasting an impressive reputation following successes at FC Ingolstadt and RB Leipzig, the Austrian’s move to Southampton was somewhat surprising following links with the Bayern Munich job in the preceding summer.
Nevertheless, Hasenhuttl grasped the opportunity to manage in the Premier League, and the Saints are benefitting from his qualities as an astute tactician.
After a rocky first 14 games, Southampton appear to be back in business. They have picked up 21 points in the 15 matches that their new boss has been in charge for, displaying the form of a team that should be nowhere near their current predicament.
Revolution not evolution was necessary at St Mary’s, for the latter would merely have been insufficient in the aftermath of the failures that Mauricio Pellegrino and Hughes oversaw.
Hasenhuttl has endeared himself to the supporters, instilled belief into the players and reopened the pathway from the youth team to the senior squad that had been absent since Claude Puel’s sacking.
Better yet, his tactics have transformed Southampton, and the results are showing. The manager is among the best outside of the top six, and his methods are extracting every last ounce from the options at his disposal.
Despite brief experimentation with a 4-4-2 system in cups, Hasenhuttl has favoured a system built upon the foundations of a back five. He deployed a 5-2-2-1 formation before switching to 5-3-2 in tandem with the improved form of James Ward-Prowse in recent months.
Angus Gunn has started in goal lately, while the defensive quintet of Yan Valery, Jan Bednarek, Maya Yoshida, Jannik Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand picks itself.
The trio of Ward-Prowse, Oriol Romeu and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has been selected almost unconditionally by Hasenhuttl since Mario Lemina’s injury, while Nathan Redmond has partnered Danny Ings up front when the striker has been fit.
As a result of the forward’s recent hamstring issues, however, either Shane Long or Charlie Austin have accompanied Redmond up front.
Hasenhuttl ensured that one of the first systemic alterations that he made to Southampton was the integration of pressing triggers, signalling when his players should press in particular phases of play, allowing them to retrieve possession aggressively.
What has enabled Southampton to win the ball back more frequently under the manager is the added pressing that now occurs in both the defensive and midfield lines.
The team are pushing higher up the pitch, and therefore the central defenders can step out to put pressure on the opposing player who is about to receive the ball.
Bednarek and Vestergaard have been primary examples of this mechanism. They flank Yoshida in the back three but have the licence to aggressively advance towards the player who is set to take the ball with their back to goal.
This pressing trigger has allowed Southampton to win the ball back in the middle third of the pitch, ergo often creating overloads centrally, with the involved defender emerging as a ball-carrier should their efforts to dispossess the attacker succeed.
The role of the centre-backs in possession
Hasenhuttl demands that members of his back three can advance with the ball at their feet, with space often forming as a result of Southampton’s midfield trio offering alternate passing lanes for the opposition to focus on. Jack Stephens and Vestergaard have proved particularly adept at this.
Central defenders with technical quality are essential in the manager’s system, as the approach is built from their ability to not only retrieve the ball but to initiate attacks with intelligent, penetrative passes.
Hasenhuttl’s RB Leipzig side played a direct brand of football, seeking vertical passing options through the middle of the pitch to allow attackers on the half-turn to create chances in the final third.
There have already been signs of this at Southampton, with the centre-backs regularly scanning for midfielders or attackers between the lines.
Nathan Redmond has thrived from this service from deep as he is excellent at receiving the ball with his back to goal and playing on the half-turn. However, Southampton’s squad is short of players who are capable of quickly taking the ball in the opposition’s defensive third.
This is mostly why Josh Sims was so effective when he was brought on at half-time in the 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur. He is technically gifted, agile and quickly shifts the ball to players around him, adding fluency to attacking phases.
In one phase, the youngster drifted away from a challenge, passed back to Vestergaard, who disguised his intentions expertly to drive a vertical ball into the feet of Sims between Tottenham’s defensive and midfield lines, allowing Saints to move with higher intensity, putting Spurs on the back foot.
Another example of this reliance to progress play with penetrative passes from deep came in Southampton’s FA Cup exit to Derby County. Stephens advanced with the ball beyond the Rams’ first line of press before playing Redmond through on goal to score.
The demands of Hasenhuttl’s wing-backs
Yan Valery and Ryan Bertrand are arguably the two most important players in Hasenhuttl’s system. They provide the width, are attacking threats and drop deep to congest the defensive third when Saints are out of possession.
Formations that include five defenders can often be chiefly defensively-minded; Southampton are anything but under the Austrian.
Hasenhuttl demands that the players who occupy the wide spaces make purposeful attacking runs from deep, ensuring that they can connect with crosses if they bypass the team’s natural forward players.
Against Crystal Palace in February, Southampton drew 1-1 and were rather uninspiring. Roy Hodgson appeared to get the better of his opposite number in the St Mary’s dugout, but it was a tactical demand of Hasenhuttl’s that gave Saints a route back into the game.
James Ward-Prowse moved to right wing-back and netted the equalising goal for Southampton. He made a late run inside the box and drove home Matt Targett’s low cross.
It was a scrappy goal, but it was not lucky by any means. The midfielder had been instructed by Hasenhuttl to make such a run, as the boss explained after the match:
As a full-back, to be in this position was perfect play from us, good deep runs which is what we are always demanding, and then they are shifting, shifting and shifting until it comes to the moment where they are one man less to defend this space and that’s exactly what we tried to do always.
Southampton were able to stretch Palace’s defence, and as a result of Eagles left-back Patrick van Aanholt marking Mohamed Elyounoussi in the box, Ward-Prowse had a clear run towards goal. Saints outnumbered their opponents and took their chance; this owed to the tactical tweaks that Hasenhuttl has been introducing since his arrival.
The benefits of the 5-3-2 system were visible in the win against Tottenham as well. Valery’s late run into the box was timed to perfection, as Stuart Armstrong’s low cross made its way to the back post, where the Frenchman had intelligently ghosted in on the blind-side of Danny Rose to clip home.
Positioning and pressing of the central midfielders
Hasenhuttl has persisted with the trio of Ward-Prowse, Romeu and Hojbjerg and has seen them develop a clear understanding of their roles, evidenced by organised pressing and positional intelligence.
The decision from the Austrian to incorporate a third natural central midfielder into the team, sacrificing an attacking player in the process, has allowed Southampton to keep their opponents on the back foot, often as a result of numerical superiority in the middle.
Out of possession, the trio all drop deep and form a low block with the defenders closely behind them, ensuring that they are facing the play and congesting the central areas, ergo restricting the chances of opposing attackers finding space between the lines.
Upon loose passes or poor initial touches, one of the midfielders advances out of the line to press, hoping to retrieve the ball and initiate the counter-attack. If the opponents continue to recycle play, the Saints are happy to hold their shape and soak up the pressure, waiting for their counterparts to surrender possession.
Romeu is usually the midfielder who sits the deepest, and he regularly drops close to the middle centre-back’s position to firstly offer an easy pass, but also in an attempt to suck opponents in with his movement, vacating space for Ward-Prowse or Hojbjerg behind him. Southampton are fortunate to have a midfielder who is press-resistant like Romeu.
The two flanking midfielders tend to press most aggressively, and can often be seen advancing beyond the forward line to chase balls back to the opposing team’s goalkeeper, forcing them to go long.
Although this pressing technique happens only in brief phases of matches, with Redmond the player who predominantly bursts from the front, it is a reflection of how Hasenhuttl is stamping his tactical approach on Southampton.
At RB Leipzig, the manager placed importance upon winning second balls in the midfield duels, and these situations were provided by aggressive pressing from Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen up front forcing goalkeepers and defenders to play the ball long.
The high pressing from Ward-Prowse and Hojbjerg has often paid dividends, with them winning the ball back in dangerous areas. The latter netted a superb goal against Manchester City after robbing Oleksandr Zinchenko of the ball in the final third, preventing the Ukrainian from turning, before driving at goal and thumping beyond Ederson.
Among themselves and the defenders, the midfielders aim to play out from testing scenarios in their own third, also, to escape from congested areas as they seek a quick switch of play.
Because of the use of three central midfielders, triangles between them and the surrounding players are readily available. As opposing players attempt to cut off passing lanes, they are too stretched to be able to cover the isolated wing-back that the combinations allow.
The midfield trio often seek passes across to either Valery or Bertrand on the flanks to relieve pressure, shifting the play from one side to the other and disorganising the opposition’s shape in the process. Ward-Prowse and Hojbjerg then push into the half-spaces to provide the closest respective wing-back with a passing option, ensuring that they have sufficient support out wide.
This tactical demand from Hasenhuttl suits Ward-Prowse in particular, with the 24-year-old able to play to his strengths, swinging crosses in from the right and arriving late into the area if balls are pulled back across goal.
How the attacking phases are dependent on space
The forward players in Hasenhuttl’s system are clearly encouraged to make early runs after attempting to knit passages of play together.
Redmond regularly drifts into deeper areas before aiming to find pockets of space in between opposing defenders, and he is at his best when they leave space behind them. This is why combination play with Bertrand on the left-hand side often results in one of the pair driving towards the by-line.
The attackers must be adept at linking play and contributing in build-up phases, with the likes of Austin and Ings dropping into the middle third to collect and distribute the ball, often to the wing-backs.
Combination play is a critical element of the manager’s approach in the final third, with the attackers falling back to create numerical advantages in central areas before the ball is shifted into space out wide.
Armstrong specialises in this quick, technical phase, and helps Southampton move the play along with greater efficiency when he comes on in a playmaking role.
Low crosses to find deep runs, and penetrative passes in behind defensive lines have been the predominant attacking aspects of the manager’s approach, but the results haven’t wholly convinced.
Southampton were impressive in wins against Arsenal, Tottenham and Fulham particularly as there was space in behind and high defensive lines were pressed into mistakes and punished by clinical finishing.
However, Hasenhuttl has so far shown only one recognisable tactical shortcoming, and this has come in games against managers who set their teams out to maintain low defensive blocks with little space between or behind their lines.
The Saints were poor in the 2-1 defeat to Cardiff City and underwhelmed in the 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace, and much of this owed to their inability to create good openings by breaking down their opponents.
Neil Warnock and Hodgson both set their teams out to limit Southampton’s running power, ensuring that no space was left vacant behind the last defensive line. This rendered Long ineffective given his speciality in runs beyond the back-lines, with Redmond also struggling to impose himself in these games.
Hasenhuttl, partially as a consequence of the limited options at his disposal, has seen his side struggle to come out on top against well-organised teams who sit back, and this isn’t uncommon with managers who tend to favour sharp breakaways and powerful runs into space.
However, with Southampton continuously gaining confidence, they are likely to take more of the ball in matches, and Hasenhuttl will have a big part to play if he is to mastermind the penetration of low defensive blocks in the short and long-term future.
It has been some time since the club have benefitted from the tactical nous of a manager such as Hasenhuttl, and as they continue to battle away in a relegation dogfight, his credentials as a manager are prevailing.
Southampton sit in 16th place but, with the Austrian at the helm for the remaining eight fixtures, they can be optimistic about avoiding the drop this season.