The Rejuvenation Of Ralph Hasenhuttl: Whisper it quietly but can Southampton stake a genuine claim for Europe?

Callum Pragnell by Callum Pragnell / 15 January 2020, 08:54

25th October 2019 - the date that Southampton Football Club sunk to one of the lowest points of their 134-year history. 

To lose a football match by a nine-goal margin is something which even us amateur footballers left behind years ago; way back in the days of mini soccer and the early stages of the full-sized game, which saw 22 underdeveloped, aspiring footballers placed on a pitch that was far too big for them, all shooting at a goal which was three times the size of the helpless 13-year-old nervously trembling between the sticks, in a kit which was three sizes too big for him.

But for the odd game of Sunday League football, which will frequently throw up a landslide victory to whichever side is less hungover on a public park the morning after the night before, a 9-0 scoreline is rarely seen in senior football. 

It is, and should never be, seen in the professional version of the game we are all helpless disciples of. In October of 2019, though, it happened to Southampton Football Club, on home soil, in front of the Sky cameras, courtesy of a ravenous Leicester City. Hundreds, if not thousands, of articles have dissected that very match since it took place under the lights of an extremely wet and miserable St Mary’s Stadium, so to discuss it too much here would be pointless. It happened, it was horrible, move on.

Sticking with Ralph has paid dividends 

The board stuck by manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, despite reports in the media making it seem as though the Austrian’s P45 was incoming. 

Looking back, that might just have been the most important decision taken by the club’s hierarchy in recent history. A 2-2 draw with Arsenal in November kick-started a complete transformation at St Mary’s (but for a slight dip in mid-December where the club fell to back-to-back defeats against Newcastle and West Ham). 

Vital wins over a Nigel Pearson-less Watford and struggling Norwich City on home turf partnered hugely impressive wins over Aston Villa, Chelsea, Tottenham and, most recently, Leicester City - the culprits of Southampton’s most humiliating ever memory only months ago. 

A hard-fought 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace bang slap in the middle of a chaotic, exhausting festive period is also worthy of mention and should not be underplayed - Palace are typically hard to beat and very hard to break down, but Southampton managed it after initially falling behind early in the second-half. 

The overall performance against the Eagles was nothing short of sublime - 15 shots on goal (six of those on target), 12 corners and 64% possession - would often result in three points obtained, on another day maybe it would have, but you can’t win them all. 

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Ralph Rejuvenated

Last weekend the club’s reserve team strolled past Huddersfield in the FA Cup, booking their spot in the fourth round of the competition, where they’ll face Tottenham at St Mary’s - this is another example of the confidence pulsating through the entire squad at the moment. 

A 2-0 win over the Terriers, courtesy of goals from two players who are yet to play a minute of Premier League football this term - Jake Voskins and Will Smallbone - is a fantastically promising sign which is a result of the manager’s trust in youth on the south coast and another reason why sticking by him was the correct decision. 

Ralph Hasenhuttl deserves all the credit in the world for what he has done during his time at Southampton. When things got tough he handled the situation with integrity, respect and, most importantly, a positive reaction.

Toffees defeat the turning point

Despite the obvious embarrassment of that hefty defeat to Brendan Rodgers’ venomous Foxes three months ago, the subsequent home match played out against Everton - a match which Southampton lost 2-1 - was arguably more disappointing. 

At the time, Southampton and Everton were beside each other in the Premier League table; the Toffees one position above Saints, who took up the last remaining spot in the unwanted relegation zone. There was a feeling among supporters of the club that the team would bounce back against Marco Silva’s struggling Toffees, but they didn’t. 

Win that match and Southampton would have drawn level with Everton and placed themselves in a much better situation moving forward. However, a terribly meek and spineless performance - which saw the Hampshire side register just two shots on target throughout the whole encounter - resulted in yet another disappointing 2-1 defeat and left the club floating further towards crippling uncertainty. 

Many have cited the Everton match as the true turning point of Southampton’s season, not the absolute pasting inflicted by Leicester a fortnight earlier - you see, the Leicester match was a freak accident. 

To label a squad of 18 professional footballers, all handsomely paid to carry out a fairly simple task: avoid losing 9-0, an ‘accident’ seems absurd on the face of it, but it’s true. It was a blotch in the club’s history and will never be forgotten - rightly so - but, it was a freak performance which you’d like to think will never, ever be repeated.

Stephens reborn in the heart of defence

The individual performances of Jack Stephens in central defence and, most notably, Danny Ings at the summit of the club’s attack, deserve unlimited credit and praise. Stephens has struggled to nail down a regular spot in the heart of Southampton’s defence and when called upon has occasionally disappointed - potentially through a lack of confidence - but has been a completely different player during the club’s recent revival. 

Standing at 6ft 1in, the Cornwall-born defender can make a baffling first impression for those expecting him to be a classic English, meat-and-potatoes centre-back. He has often been criticised for being too soft and not possessing the grit required to hold a Premier League defence together but, of late, that is exactly what he has done for Southampton. 

“Essentially he’s [Stephens] blocked 11% of shots Southampton have faced while he’s been on the pitch,” James Yorke, head of Analysis at Statsbomb, was quoted as telling The Athletic in a recent interview. 

“Jan Bednarek is at six per cent, Maya Yoshida and Jannik Vestergaard are at four per cent. His rate is enough to lead the league alongside Tyrone Mings, so he’s been a good last-ditch defender this season.”

“Elsewhere, he’s stopped 58% of opponent dribbles attempted on him, again this is ahead of Bednarek (51%), Vestergaard (43%) and Yoshida (33%). His foul rate is low too (0.45 per game) compared to Yoshida (0.44), Bednarek (1.06) and Vestergaard (0.72). Small differences but enough to get a flavour of how he shapes up.”

In short, Stephens is a completely different player these days, and a vital component for Southampton as they continue to clamber closer towards the top half of the division, whilst at the same time leaving the unforgiving clutches of the bottom-three bitterly swallowing the dust from their heels. Long may it continue. 

Super Danny Ings

Then there is Danny Ings. King Danny Ings; the saviour, the messiah, whatever prophet you wish to name him - perhaps a simple “Super Danny Ings” will suffice, it doesn’t really matter. 

Here we have a player that has the ability to leave opposing defences punchdrunk with his relentless pressing and determination. A player who can effortlessly find the net from angles which look impossible upon first reflection; a player who has created a swashbuckling relationship with a club who found themselves at their lowest ebb, in desperate need of a leader. 

At Liverpool injuries looked as though they may have ruined Ings’ career. Now, at St Mary’s, the stadium situated just a few miles away from his family home and childhood friends in Hamble, he looks reborn. 

Ings has found the net 14 times in the Premier League this term, only Leicester’s Jamie Vardy has scored more. He is level with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, and ahead of Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham (13) and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero (13). 

Currently, Ings has three more goals to his name than Harry Kane, Sadio Mane and Raheem Sterling - unbelievable, considering the side he plays for have spent the most-part of this testing campaign languishing in the bottom-three. 

There is now a credible claim for Ings to be selected for England ahead of the struggling Callum Wilson and little would begrudge him of the opportunity with his current, scintillating form considered.

The Saints are now just six points behind fifth-placed Manchester United, and just two points away from eighth-placed Tottenham. Three months ago, after the 9-0 Sunday League-esque capitulation against Leicester, the club looked doomed. Now, things are different due to a number of reasons and the feel-good factor has well and truly been reinstated. Is 12th the limit of Southampton’s success this season, though? At this moment in time, it is hard to imagine so. 

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