The energy and enthusiasm of Ralph Hassenhuttl quickly made him the most popular Southampton manager since Mauricio Pochettino, but likeability cannot cover override results forever.
Southampton faced off against Brighton on Sunday with the chance to effectively seal survival. Victory would have moved them ten points clear of their opposition and taken them a safe distance from Fulham and Newcastle. Brighton and Graeme Potter had other ideas, completing a well deserved 2-1 away victory to give the Seagull’s quest for survival a sense of ‘confidence and renewed belief.’
Perhaps most concerningly for those with a Southampton allegiance was that battle between the managers resulted in a comprehensive victory for Potter over the beleaguered Austrian.
With the score tied at halftime and the match in the balance, Graeme Potter made a tactical change. Andi Zeqiri replaced Dan Burn, adding pace to the left side of the Brighton attack and subsequently pinning the dangerous Kyle Walker-Peters in to his own half for the majority of the second period. Zeqiri wasn’t directly involved in Leandro Trossard’s excellent winning goal but he set the tone for a dominant performance that saw Brighton cruise to the finish line with more ease than the score line suggests. Vitally, Potter had a plan and his players executed it. It is becoming increasingly rare that the same can be said for Hassenhuttl and his men.
Reports emerged earlier in the month stating that those in charge at Southampton are ‘firmly behind boss Hassenhuttl’ but the Saints’ record setting slide will not have gone unnoticed by anyone. Concerningly, the long overdue recent victory at basement club Sheffield United appears now more of a blip than a turn of fortune based on the anemic display against Brighton.
It is far too simplistic to blame the problems at Southampton solely on the manager. Injuries to key man (Ings, Romeu & Walker-Peters most crucially) have exposed a severe lack of squad depth and there are serious questions over the suitability and intentions of the club’s mysterious ownership. Even so, Sunday’s dismal defeat highlighted a worrying fact; Ralph Hassenhuttl does not currently seem to be getting the best from the XI on the field.
In the last minute of injury time against Brighton, Saints were awarded a goal kick. They kept possession for the 47 seconds until the final whistle without ever reaching the final third. Nothing could better encapsulate the strange sense of apathy at St Marys that is slowly turning public opinion against a manager who, only four months ago, led a table topping side with a delirious fanbase.
Southampton next four fixtures pit them in an FA Cup Quarter Final with Bournemouth and Premier League clashes with Burnley, West Brom and Crystal Palace. Within a matter of weeks, Southampton will find themselves either comfortably cruising or in a serious fight for survival. Ralph Hassenhuttl’s reputation now hinges on whether he can inspire his stuttering squad to safety.