“They are so, so good,” said Pep Guardiola. His first reaction to being asked about victory at St Mary’s was to say “how impressed I was with Southampton.” This was not the patronising praise sometimes dispensed to a beaten team, possibly to inflate the victor’s achievement in defeating them. This was more heartfelt.
Guardiola has a habit of hailing managers whose ideas he admires and, in part, his words reflected his fondness for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s high-pressing, attacking ethos. But they were also a sign of achievement. Even with Saturday’s setback, Southampton will still spend Christmas above Manchester City in the table.
At which point, there is a contractual obligation to mention the 9-0 defeat to Leicester, the time Southampton spent in the relegation zone 12 months ago and the reward they reaped for sticking with Hasenhuttl.
But while the temptation is to credit managers whenever their teams do well, this really is the Austrian’s triumph. It is not just an endorsement of his style of play, but of his coaching. Because, and while Saints’ performance levels have indicated otherwise, perhaps some of their players are not individually that good; not without Hasenhuttl anyway.
Not compared to the sides Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman took to eighth, seventh and sixth (they limped to a flattering fourth top-eight finish under Claude Puel), most of whom were the targets of raids from big-six clubs. Teams with various combinations of Virgil van Dijk, Toby Alderweireld, Dejan Lovren, Jose Fonte, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, Cedric Soares and Nathaniel Clyne in defence, Morgan Schneiderlin, Steven Davis and Victor Wanyama in midfield and Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic, Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Graziano Pelle in attack had high-class personnel. The incongruous element was that they were at a club that had been in League One relatively recently; they had not proved themselves capable of the feats many would later accomplish. That is not to criticise Pochettino or Koeman, but hindsight suggests they did not overachieve as much as then felt the case.
Fast forward a few years and this is a different scenario; a club that had three flirtations with relegation, two of which threatened to become full-blown affairs, with a cast list plucked from mid-table anonymity. This is a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, and a group improved on the training pitch. Danny Ings’ remarkable scoring return of 27 goals in his last 43 games has rendered him the side’s star, but it is notable that even a player of his calibre has produced the best form of his career under Hasenhuttl. He is not alone in that, while a rejuvenated Theo Walcott is performing better than he has for years.
But it is also worth considering the cases of their colleagues. Even James Ward-Prowse, now the division’s pre-eminent free-kick taker, was Saints’ 19th man for a trip to Huddersfield two years ago; now he is captain. Oriol Romeu, hyperbolically described as one of the best players in the league by Roberto Martinez last week, seemed physically incapable of passing the ball forward before Hasenhuttl arrived. He has been reinvented.
In Che Adams, he has a striker who did not score in his first 25 Premier League games; now he has reduced the reliance on Ings with eight goals in his last 19 matches. Jannik Vestergaard’s set-piece threat and long-passing range has brought recent comparisons with Virgil van Dijk; few came up with such heady suggestions during his undistinguished first two years in Hampshire. Jose Mourinho was happy for Kyle Walker-Peters to leave Spurs. Nor is this a rise propelled by money: Walker-Peters and Walcott are the only summer signings in a starting 11 that arguably looked weaker after the summer sale of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. Hasenhuttl’s accomplishments are all the greater because, before he arrived, the proceeds of many a sale was squandered: Guido Carrillo, Mohamed Elynounoussi, Mario Lemina, Wesley Hoedt, Sofiane Boufal cost almost as much as his current first-choice side and delivered little in return. He inherited relatively little and turned it into a lot.
Hasenhuttl’s innate likeability, Southampton’s energetic, progressive brand of football and their series of scorelines – 2-5, 3-3, 4-3, 2-3 – has produced the sort of side many would hope to see at their club. Saints may hope that Borussia Dortmund, fresh from sacking Lucien Favre, have not noticed the extent to which a revival has been instigated by one man. Because this is proof of the difference management can make. And Pep Guardiola would probably concur with that.
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