Sticking With Hasenhuttl Is Southampton’s Best Decision Since Mauricio Pochettino’s Appointment
Sticking with Hasenhuttl is Southampton’s Best Decision Since Mauricio Pochettino’s Appointment
These days, managers get the sack quicker than Neymar falls to the ground after a defender makes “contact” (you can read about why I think that is the case here). Managers whose teams have sat in the relegation zone for most of the season go down even quicker, with “dead man walking” a popular phrase in the discussions surrounding them. In fact, if Leicester City’s title-winning manager Claudio Ranieri can be sacked a few months after guiding the club to a Premier League title that they had 5000/1 odds of winning then almost no one is safe if results start to falter a bit.
Therefore, it was no surprise that in the days following Southampton’s 9-0 defeat to Leicester City, almost everyone expected news to come through that Ralph Hasenhuttl had been shown the door. What was shocking, albeit pleasantly so, that the news never came.
Southampton’s 9-0 loss to Leicester at St. Mary’s in October 2019 was the club’s worst ever defeat. It was also the biggest home defeat in Premier League history. What made matters even worse was that till that point they had only won a total of eight points and were sitting in 18th place. Most analysts considered them as one of the favourites to get relegated this season.
It seemed like there was no way out in sight, except the one way that almost all clubs take in these situations: sacking the manager.
The Southampton board’s decision to keep faith in their Austrian manager is, according to me, the best decision the club has made since they appointed Mauricio Pochettino in 2013.
I am not sure what specific reason made the board do what it did, but there were several indicators at the time as to why it made sense to give Hasenhuttl more time.
Maybe the board looked at underlying numbers for this season. From August to October, although Southampton were 18th in the table with only eight points, the expected points (xPTS) table, derived from the revolutionary expected goals (xG) metric, had them in 12th place (source: Understat).
Even simply watching them regularly made it clear that they were quite unlucky because of wasteful finishing, individual errors and lapses in concentration. Maybe the board realised that there was some legitimate and competent work being done on the training pitch, and that this work was bound to bear fruit eventually as Southampton’s actual results would start converging with their underlying numbers and performance levels.
Let’s also not forget that Hasenhuttl had been at the club for even less than a year at that time. He joined in the middle of the 2018/19 season and had no pre-season that season with the players. For a manager who wants to play in a very specific and direct manner like the Austrian, time on the training pitch is crucial.
Even though he had a full pre-season with the squad before the start of this season, he still very much had to make-do with what he had been given, which in itself was hardly great. Southampton’s squad wouldn’t make the top 12 on paper by any means.
Hasenhuttl’s only full transfers were Danny Ings, Che Adams and Moussa Djenepo – a total of roughly 38 million pounds. Most of this money was financed by an outgoing list worth 22 million pounds, which included the likes of Matt Targett and Charlie Austin. So, essentially, Southampton have only spent around 16 million pounds while Hasenhuttl has been in charge, which is practically nothing in the footballing world these days.
This modest summer spending meant that not only did the Austrian have several players that were not suited to his high-octane football, but he also did not have a lot of quality players available either. This had led him to shift from his preferred formation to a 3-5-2 in order to accommodate the type and quality of players he had. The problem was that things were still not working out in the slightest.
Hasenhuttl was hamstrung and the board, to their credit, recognised that. They realised that sacking the manager would be counterproductive. There was an acknowledgement that it would lay waste to months’ worth of a process that had clearly improved Southampton (albeit not on the face of it this season). There was also no guarantee that the new manager’s process would be better or even as successful as the current one.
In essence, they did the exact opposite of what the Watford board did, which was to sack Javi Gracia a couple of months into the new season. They did so despite the fact that he was someone, like Hasenhuttl, who had done well with the club in the previous season (he had even brilliantly guided them to an FA Cup final in May 2019). They did so despite the fact that, much like Southampton, Watford’s underlying numbers showed that they were incredibly unlucky to be bottom of the table.
Unlike Southampton though, Watford pulled the plug on Gracia. Their rash decision-making eventually led them to a point where they had to sack the very person they had brought in to replace Gracia, Qique Sanchez Flores.
Only now, in January, have Watford somehow recovered a bit from their shambolic start to the season.
Speaking of January and recovery, Southampton beat second-placed Leicester City 2-1 at the King Power Stadium a week ago. The result is impressive enough in isolation, but becomes even more praiseworthy when placed in the context of the reverse fixture and all the demons that were associated with it.
A lot has changed for Southampton between the two fixtures, but one thing that hasn’t is the manager.
The club’s recent victory against Leicester is a microcosm of their resurrection and revolution under Ralph Hasenhuttl – the manner in which they have turned around the 9-0 defeat into an amazing 2-1 victory is similar to how they have managed to win more than double the points (20) in the last 12 games than they did in the first ten games (eight).
The Premier League table from 1st November 2019 to today (i.e. 17th January 2020) puts Southampton in fifth place, only behind Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester City and Manchester United. Since their 2-1 defeat to Everton on 9th October, they are fourth. During that time, they have faced the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, and of course, Leicester City.
So how have they done it?
Well, it started with Hasenhuttl going back to what he knew and what made him successful – the 4-2-2-2 formation with a mobile double pivot in midfield. Since Southampton’s defeat at home to Everton on 9th November, Hasenhuttl has used this trusted formation in every single game.
Within the system, he has employed a high-energy central midfield partnership of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and James Ward-Prowse. Ward-Prowse, especially, has been impressive ever since the positional change. This midfield duo is perfect for Hasenhuttl’s high pressing and dynamic system, and its simultaneous contributions towards the team’s creativity and solidity are a true hallmark of this mid-season revolution.
With the change in formation, Southampton have become more aggressive and front-footed. Not only has Hasenhuttl started implementing principles of play that he is familiar with, the players have also embraced this newfound proactivity with enthusiasm.
To be fair though, it would be wrong to say that Hasenhuttl’s side did not press aggressively before they started playing the 4-2-2-2 system regularly. His nickname is “Alpine Klopp” and it exists for a reason.
Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) is a statistic which measures how many passes a team allowed the opposition to make before initiating a defensive action. PPDA is generally considered an effective measure of pressing. The lower the PPDA, the more the team is proactive in pressing and winning the ball back from the opposition.
From the start of the season till 1st November 2019, a timeframe in which Southampton primarily played with a 3-5-2, their PPDA was 8.94 – the fifth best in the league. For context, Liverpool had a PPDA of 7.28 during that timeframe and they are considered one of the best pressing sides in the world. Newcastle, on the other hand, had the worst PPDA in the league at 24.13 (source: Understat).
So clearly, Southampton were pressing aggressively even when results weren’t going their way. But since November 1st, they have improved their PPDA to 8.33 – the third best in the league. If you check from 1st December, it has improved even further to 7.94.
As the season has gone on, Hasenhuttl’s side has increased its aggression and proactive attitude in playing higher up the pitch and pressing from the front.
One particular individual has been key in this entire enterprise. Not only has he been the leader of the aforementioned “pressing from the front” but he has also been a revelation in front of goal.
Danny Ings, a player whose career hasn’t reached the heights his talent demanded because of poor luck with injuries, has managed to stay fit throughout the season and play all 22 league games so far. Ings has shown time and again that if he manages to play consistently and get into a solid rhythm, there are few questions or doubts about his effectiveness and output.
This season he already has 14 league goals from 22 games – at the time of writing, only Jamie Vardy has scored more. He is scoring a goal every 110 minutes, which roughly equates to a goal per game. Those numbers are considered world class in any scenario. To do it for a team that was struggling for almost half of the season and one that, even on its good days, is far from one of the best teams in the country is even more incredible.
In terms of defensive numbers, Ings is also delivering at a very high level. The gold standard in pressing from the front is Roberto Firmino. Surprisingly, the Southampton striker is actually on par with, and in some cases even statistically better than, Liverpool’s Brazilian international if defensive statistics from this season are examined.
While it is true that defending volume does not equate to defending quality generally, defending volume still serves as a good measure in this case because the analysis is centred around attackers and how much they contribute to the team’s pressing from the front.
Ings is making 1.1 tackles per game and 0.2 interceptions per game. He is winning the ball back in the final third, on average, once every single game. Firmino, meanwhile, has 0.9 tackles per game and 0.1 interceptions per game. He has won possession in the final third 0.8 times per game, on average.
Going toe-to-toe with Roberto Firmino in defensive numbers is no mean feat, and it is a testament to Ings’ work rate and superb work ethic.
Regardless of whichever way you look at it, Danny Ings is invaluable for Southampton and their league prospects this season. So is Ralph Hasenhuttl.
So how have they done it?
Essentially, by not sacking the man who it seems is leading them to their first top-half finish in the Premier League since 2016/17.