Few managers in the Premier League are better known for developing young players than Ralph Hasenhuttl.
The Austrian was more than willing to put his faith in a bustling group at Ingolstadt as they rose to the Bundesliga and consolidated their position in the top flight under his stewardship.
RB Leipzig, too, saw a squad packed with young talent nurtured by Hasenhuttl, with few experienced players in the ranks as they secured second-place and sixth-place finishes with the boss at the helm.
Hasenhuttl’s next project is rather more challenging, but he has already laid down the foundations to repeat what proved to be a successful approach in Germany.
At Leipzig more than Ingolstadt, there was a clear emphasis on constructing a young core of players who would set the club up for years to come as they approached their peak years.
In fact, such was the impetus that Hasenhuttl put upon the development of the youthful assets at his disposal, the average squad age of Die Roten Bullen across his two years at the club was just shy of 24, a remarkably low return, made all the more impressive by their battles at the top-end of the Bundesliga.
This is a trend that Hasenhuttl has actively sought to continue and replicate at Southampton, and although the standard of players at his disposal is markedly lower than that of his time at Leipzig, the youth-centric ethos is already firmly in place.
Under Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes, the club’s young players appeared to lose their way and see chances of forcing their way into the first-team setup limited by expensive signings of underperforming players from abroad.
However, Hasenhuttl has worked hard to reestablish a pathway from the youth academy to the first team, with the help of Craig Fleming in a more involved role on the coaching staff following his ventures with the youth sides.
As he did at Leipzig, Hasenhuttl is focusing on cementing a strong core of young players who are scarcely displaced. Angus Gunn, Jan Bednarek, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Nathan Redmond are arguably the first names on the teamsheet, and the eldest among those in question is only 25-years-old.
Hasenhuttl has leaned towards playing 20-year-old Yan Valery ahead of 28-year-old Cedric Soares. He has also, in recent times, made the bold move of deploying new signing Kevin Danso, 20, in the unfamiliar role of left-back instead of Ryan Bertrand, 30.
Another example of the manager’s intention to move away from utilising the more senior players within the group has been his exclusion of Shane Long. The 32-year-old, who scored four times in the final seven games of last season, has made just one appearance on the bench – and from the bench – in the Premier League so far this term.
Replacing him in the 18-man matchday squad has been Michael Obafemi, a 19-year-old Republic of Ireland international with little first-team experience under his belt but arguably a higher ceiling than his compatriot Long.
Such has been the focus on playing younger players and creating a forward-thinking team with their best years ahead of them, the average age of Southampton’s starting line-ups in the Premier League this season has been 24.7.
This means that Hasenhuttl has, on average, fielded the joint-second youngest starting line-ups in the whole of the Premier League so far this term alongside Daniel Farke’s Norwich City. Only Manchester United’s average starting line-up age (24.4) is lower.
There is undoubtedly still place for the experienced heads such as Bertrand, Danny Ings and Maya Yoshida, but it is clear to see that Saints are progressively moving away from a bloated squad filled with players either past their best or incompatible with the methods that Hasenhuttl has employed.
Whether or not the manager will be able to lead this youthful group to a mid-table finish this season remains to be seen. However, it must serve as encouragement to note that Hasenhuttl is determined to create a culture that enables budding players a chance to force their way into the senior plans.