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How far can Ralph Hasenhuttl take the Saints?

Following the sacking of Mark Hughes earlier in December, the Southampton board were quick to appoint their new manager, in the hopes of lifting themselves out of the relegation zone and back up the table.

The manager they chose was Ralph Hasenhuttl – the man who took Red Bull Leipzig to new heights in the Champions League. When he took over at the German outfit in 2016, Leipzig had undergone a meteoric rise through the ranks from the fifth division to the Bundesliga throughout their existence as a football club since 2009.

Their ambition did not stop there however and the team seemed to emerge from nowhere straight into the Champions League spots of the Bundesliga, eventually finishing second place in the league.

Few fans of the Premier League will have heard much about Ralph Hasenhuttl but the Austrian has been chosen to save Southampton from their relegation struggles. In the time he’s officially been the manager, the Saints have picked up six points in three games – and in their loss to Tottenham, the newly appointed manager was sat in the stands.

So is it fair to say that Southampton can achieve more than finishing above the bottom three and perhaps even contest for a European place? And what kind of methods can we expect to see from the new man in charge at Southampton?

Aggression on and off the ball

The moment Southampton kicked off against Arsenal it was clear the effect that Hasenhuttl had already had on his new squad. You would not have believed that the Saints had only scored 13 goals beforehand as their ambitious forward passes caused the Gunners problems from minute one.

There’s no doubt that Hasenhuttl is going for a much more direct approach than that of Hughes and the associated risks paid off in the end. A lot of this sort of play seems to have made its way with the manager to the South Coast from Leipzig, but there are also a few noticeable differences.

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Back in Germany, Hasenhuttl employed a tactic that had the attackers and midfielders mostly occupying a central role both in the attacking phase and defending phase. However, at Southampton, the Austrian has permitted these players to adopt a wider role, encouraging crosses towards the striker. Given that this striker will be one of either Ings, Austin or Long, this approach seems pretty sensible and it has worked a treat – all three of their goals against Arsenal came from headers resulting from crosses from the wide areas.

But Southampton truly looked like a completely different team whenever they didn’t have the ball. Hasenhuttl’s desires in that respect were blindingly obvious as the Saints aggressively pressed both Arsenal and Huddersfield into making sloppy mistakes and then capitalised on them. The fact that almost a third of Southampton’s league goals have come in the last two games is as much of a testament to this sort of off-the-ball attacking as it is to their productive use of possession.

Adaptable but true to his philosophies

Southampton had plenty of formation changes under Mark Hughes as they struggled to find the elusive winning formula. Hasenhuttl decided to pick the exact same team and formation against both Arsenal and Huddersfield, employing Valery and Targett as wing-backs to try and exploit the wider areas. This was not seen an awful lot at Leipzig last season, which suggests an element of adaptability in Southampton’s new manager.

Hasenhuttl seems to have taken one look at the players at his disposal and immediately worked out an optimal formation. Adopting a wider style of play has not at all put him off and the 51-year-old has formulated an efficient way of carrying out this tactic.

Not only this, Hasenhuttl has not completely discarded his philosophies that made Leipzig so successful in the last couple of seasons. Their belligerent pressing and heavy forward passes have translated into the players at Southampton and this has worked pretty well so far.

This was particularly evident against Huddersfield, where the Saints’ goals differed significantly to the ones they scored a week earlier. The Terriers seemed more vulnerable down the centre of the pitch and Southampton recognised this, looking for those vertical passes to slice through the central defenders. You could visibly see the similarities between Southampton in this match and Leipzig under Hasenhuttl.

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What is he capable of with Southampton?

As Mark Hughes slowly steered Southampton towards their doom, it was evident that the board needed to appoint a new manager to bump them out of the relegation zone. Well, that job has been fulfilled almost immediately, but what is the target for the end of the campaign?

As we near the halfway point of the season, 15 points is not a great deal by any stretch, but another ten points or so could bring Southampton into the mid-table mix. Six points separate the 6th and 12th positions so if Hasenhuttl can continue this great start to Premier League life, qualification for the Europa League could well be on the cards.

However, Southampton certainly shouldn’t get ahead of themselves. After all, it’s only been two wins, albeit won in drastic style. With some very tough games coming up as we tick over into the new year, there’s every chance that Southampton could get dragged back down into the relegation zone. The job is far from over for Hasenhuttl, but he’s already made a name for himself on the Premier League scene.

Harry Mahon

90maat's team correspondent for Tottenham Hotspur and a student at Loughborough University.

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