This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Leicester’s Friday-night romp in Southampton in October 2019 had almost died as a cliché. It was on its way out as a meme, becoming instead a tired commentary constant… until lightning struck twice in February 2021. Manchester United 9 Southampton 0.
Eighteen goals conceded and three red cards shown across those two infamous fixtures tell their own sordid stories. Yet the 9-0 checkpoints are more than just bumps in the road for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men: they’re in the very DNA of this side. ‘Intensity’ is the word at St Mary’s, both positively and negatively.
In two and a half years, Hasenhuttl has drilled this team to become a high-pressing, hard-running beast that can suffocate the opposition. When they’re not winning, however, Saints look whippable – not least on the road, where they leaked 1.88 goals per game in 2020/21 even without that mauling in Manchester.
Last term brought the dazzling and the diabolical, contrasted in two segments of Southampton’s season. Having finished the 2019/20 campaign with five wins from their last nine games – one, against Manchester City – Saints then briefly topped the Premier League for the first time ever, in November. Che Adams and Danny Ings found harmony, while James Ward-Prowse directed the orchestra. The graft shown in January’s 1-0 triumph over Liverpool, in the face of an injury crisis, moved the manager to tears.
But five consecutive defeats followed, including that nine-goal hiding at Old Trafford. The fallout was ugly: eventually, their miserable run of form read two wins from 17, with only Burnley and Sheffield United slain. Fulham and Crystal Palace were beaten before the end, but it was too late – an adventure to the FA Cup semi-finals hid a multitude of sins for Saints, who looked hollow, tired and all pressed out.
A new campaign presents new challenges, with Hasenhuttl needing to bring his side back to basics, especially with Ings and Jannick Vestergaard both now having only 12 months left on their contracts and could move on this summer. However, Adams is a year more refined; Mohammed Salisu, Kyle Walker-Peters and Ibrahima Diallo are developing apace; Oriol Romeu will return from injury; and Theo Walcott is back at the club for good.
Southampton could yet record a first top-half finish since 2016/17, but only if they keep their cool; only if they sort out this wild fluctuation in form. Hasenhuttl must find that healthy balance between dynamism and disasters – otherwise, he’ll be using both hands to count up the opposition’s goals again.
The five-point plan
1 Share the goals
Southampton actually bettered their xG last season (by 1.72), which is troubling. Ings and Adams scored 21 goals between them, and the set-piece wizard that is Ward-Prowse contributed eight, but neither Walcott, Nathan Redmond nor Moussa Djenepo managed more than three, which is hardly ideal.
2 Throw the full-backs forward
The comparisons between Hasenhuttl and Jurgen Klopp are clear, but Kloppo would never settle for just three assists from his full-backs in a season. As well as Walker-Peters performed last campaign, better supply from wide areas – Saints barely cross at all – would help their predatory strikers no end. Finding the right replacement for Leicester-bound Ryan Bertrand is a high priority.
3 Add some numbers
Although Southampton used 29 players in 2020-21, the second-most in the league, 10 of them were aged 22 or below, and only two made more than a couple of league starts. Injuries hit hard, and Hasenhuttl simply didn’t have the reinforcements to keep his team competitive. When Walker-Peters was sidelined for seven games at the start of 2021, Southampton lost six of them.
𝘽𝙊𝙊𝙈! 🚀Che Adams slams in Southampton's second goal against #SUFC - what a hit! 🔥pic.twitter.com/1BtJEq0etSMarch 6, 2021
4 Toughen up to tighten up
Only West Bromwich Albion conceded more goals, and even allowing for the Old Trafford inflation, Southampton’s fragility cost them, as they repeatedly squandered leads. They won only half of the 18 matches in which they scored the first goal, so it’s vital they harden that soft centre.
5 Formulate a Plan B
So idiosyncratic is Ralph Hasenhuttl’s high-octane approach, it’s tricky to find alternatives if it fails. But there are problems with the Austrian’s masterplan. Saints rarely look like getting back into games in which they’re trailing; they don’t really win enough corners for a team with Ward-Prowse and Vestergaard in tandem; and their pressing game is admirable but draining. Solutions are needed to make this side more resolute.
FFT verdict: 14th
Ings’ refusal to ink a new deal means survival is reliant on Hasenhuttl’s coaching acumen.
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