FEATURE | Southampton’s pursuit of Ralph Hasenhüttl is a clear sign of ambition

The news of Southampton striking a deal with former RB Leipzig boss Ralph Hasenhüttl should come as pleasant music to every Saints fan on earth. With terms agreed in principle with the Austrian, the club from the South Coast of England should look forward to having a manager who will remind them of the times that they spent under the likes of Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino.

The era of Mark Hughes was probably a detachment from what the club’s fans wanted their club to be like. Brought in as an emergency manager who had the know-how of surviving Premier League relegation, the former Manchester United striker was never meant to be a long-term Saints boss. He never promises the kind of football that Southampton have seen under Pochettino and Koeman. It was dull and aimless.

Hasenhüttl though, is set to be a brilliant acquisition by the club. It is a clear sign of ambition and the willingness to be what they were not long ago. The former Leipzig, Ingolstadt and Aalen boss was linked with the Arsenal job and it just shows what Southampton are now aiming for, after a period that wasn’t their best at all.

What Pochettino was known for at St. Mary’s and does at Tottenham now is a reflection of Pep Guardiola’s style at Manchester City. There is emphasis on building from the back. While Spurs don’t build from the back as impressively as City, they like to play possession oriented football, which relies on pressing high up the pitch whenever they lose it or if they’re simply out of possession. Hasenhüttl though, is slightly different. The reliance on possession is low, but the priority is the same- press the opposition high up the pitch, nick the ball in areas close to goal and lure them into pressing traps.

Hasenhüttl’s sides rely on counter-attacking after pressing the opposition into losing the ball. That’s reminiscent more of Koeman than of Pochettino, but Hasenhüttl’s Leipzig side was not scared to take hold of possession and create chances. It was positive, attack minded and progressive. The attacking players at Leipzig improved vastly.

The 4-2-2-2 formation that Hasenhüttl used at Leipzig captured the imaginations of many. It did transition to a 4-2-3-1 during play, with Diego Demme playing as the defensive midfield player, but the German’s presence allowed the side to play a very attractive brand of football. The players had the freedom to express themselves and the bright young players in the side thoroughly enjoyed that freedom.

Timo Werner, Yussuf Poulsen and Emil Forsberg became household names and enjoyed the best season of their lives till that famous 2016-17 season. Their transition from being second division players to top class first division players was benefited by the system in place. Marcel Sabitzer, Stefan Ilsanker and Naby Keita too transformed into proper first division players, who could play in any team in the world.

A lot of credit was taken away from Demme though, as he was the player who set the foundation for everything. He would drop in around the centre-halves, allowing Forsberg and Keita to make attacking contributions. His decent passing traits weren’t world-class, but he did the simple things right, connecting the defence with attack with simple and precise passes. In a period around February in that 2016-17 season, Demme’s injury saw Kevin Kampl play in his position. While Kampl is a very good midfield player, Leipzig struggled in Demme’s absence. And the German was probably Leipzig’s most underrated player of all.

It isn’t just the attacking players who benefited from the system, the defensive players too enjoyed playing under Hasenhüttl. Willi Orban was a constant part of the defence, but his partners changed. It was either Marvin Compper or Dayot Upamecano. While the side relied more on outscoring teams and leaving them rattled with a hard-working high-pressing system, the defence very often did slip up but the attack made up for it.

Upamecano though, was another player who made the most out of Hasenhüttl’s time. He developed into one of the most wanted young central defenders in Europe and Hasenhüttl’s trust in him to play regularly paid off. He has already made nine appearances for the club this season.

Although, one criticism that many would bring up in this case is that it is considerably easy to help a moneybag club like Leipzig finish second, but it is miles more tough to do the same at a club like Southampton. But the catch is that he’s done similar things with considerably less money at Ingolstadt and Aalen.

The 51-year-old from Graz joined Aalen in the winter of 2011, with the club struggling one point above the relegation zone of the third division in Germany. Five months after he had taken over, Aalen finished 11 points clear of the drop and Hasenhüttl earned himself a new contract. In the summer of 2011, Hasenhüttl set about imposing his style and influence on the side, as he signed eight players and released 14. While the club was aiming for a mid-table finish, Aalen finished second and gained automatic promotion into the second division.

The style at Aalen was not like the one that Hasenhüttl had at Leipzig. It was much more direct and no-nonsense. The technically superior players that he had at the East Germany side helped Hasenhüttl impose the high-pressing philosophy.

When Aalen came into the 2. Bundesliga, Hasenhüttl made up his made to play attacking football and the shape was changed from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1. And it worked to brilliant effect. Although, they did finish ninth, Aalen were as high as fifth heading into the winter break. At the end of the 2012-13 season though, Hasenhüttl resigned following disagreements about transfers with the club’s sporting director Markus Schupp.

About 3 months later, a new challenge came knocking. It was Ingolstadt. The Bavarian club was based in a city where Hasenhüttl had played as a player during his time with Bayern Munich II. Ingolstadt had not played in the Bundesliga in their history, but their new manager made their dreams come true.

Hasenhüttl took over when the club was floundering inside relegation and helped them finish tenth. In his first full season at the club though, Ingolstadt finished the division as champions, much to the surprise of many. The way the likes of Benjamin Hubner, Danny da Costa and Pascal Gross had improved raised the eyebrows of many. Hubner has become a vital part of Julian Nagelsmann Hoffenheim over the last two seasons, Pascal Gross was one of Brighton’s best players under Chris Hughton and Danny da Costa has now regularly found himself in the upper reaches of the Bundesliga and has played 13 games for Eintracht Frankfurt this season. Hubner and Matt Leckie were very cheap, shrewd signings that costed Ingolstadt less than a million. That clearly shows that Hasenhüttl has a keen eye for identifying talent and nurturing them into better players.

The bigger challenge than going up for Ingolstadt, was to stay up. Many expected them to go back into 2. Bundesliga. But Hasenhüttl took the Bavarian club to 11th in their debut Bundesliga season and it was deemed to be a bigger surprise than coming up.

While Southampton will be a wholly different and new ball game, Hasenhüttl will give exactly what the club has relied on over the past few years. The Saints have become a club that identifies lesser known talents, develops them and sells them on for a higher price. To replace them, the club follows a similar policy and it is like a cyclic chain that the club has adopted as a very lucrative policy.

Hughes’ time was a blip that the club fans would want to forget. He was a sheer mismatch. Claude Puel was handed the axe despite being a manager who believes in a similar philosophy to that of Koeman, bar the approach to the game. But is Hasenhüttl the coach who will take the Saints forward. It might not work out from day one like it always has for him, but the key should be to give him the freedom and space to impose himself at the club. The Austrian thrives on that. His relations with Ralf Rangnick were very positive and the presence of Paul Mitchell as the club’s chief scout was vital.

If he’s granted the freedom to be himself, there is no doubt that Hasenhüttl will take the Premier League by storm very soon.

By Kaustubh Pandey.


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