Southampton had one win on the board and nine points from their opening 15 games of the season.
They looked certain for relegation. Years of poor decisions in the transfer market had cost them dear. Fans took aim at the new owners and Director of Football Les Reed and Chairman Ralph Krueger (both of whom have left the club this season) for hiring and firing three managers in just over 12 months.
Then Ralph Hasenhuttl arrived for his first taste of English soccer and everything changed. Fans love his enthusiasm on the sidelines and his honesty in interviews created a Jurgen Klopp-esque bond. His first press conference set the tone perfectly.
The talented but previously unenthused players have ran themselves into the ground and beat the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Wolves and Everton at home, results which were unthinkable earlier in the campaign.
Hasenhuttl’s clear vision led to gritty displays which saw Saints secure their status as a Premier League side on Saturday after their 3-3 draw with Bournemouth.
Now the really, really hard work starts if Saints are to return to being contenders for a top 10 finish rather than what they’ve now become, perennial relegation strugglers.
The former RB Leipzig head coach knows it.
“We will have a few players leaving. In every position we will try to get better next year,” Hasenhuttl said. “We had a very interesting last transfer period – no signings, just giving players away. This summer we will rebuild. We can start planning for next year tomorrow. A bit less stress would be nice [next season], sitting relaxed outside and taking the points we need. The target is to get 40 points earlier than this year.”
That planning for next season should start right now at Southampton.
The Austrian coach didn’t spend any money in the January transfer window, his only window since arriving at the club, and it is unlikely he will be able to spend that much this summer.
Saints are hamstrung by having expensive signings on long-term contracts who they can’t get rid of.
Similar to the likes of Aston Villa and Sunderland before them, who kept their heads just above water season after season before finally being relegated, Saints are stuck with a bloated squad who haven’t proved their worth.
Wesley Hoedt, Sofiane Boufal, Cedric and Guido Carrillo are all out on loan right now and are unlikely to return. Manolo Gabbiadini was sold to Sampdoria in January. Fraser Forster is one of their highest earners but hasn’t played since December 2017. Mohamed Elyounoussi has barely featured. The list goes on and on.
Quite simply, Hasenhuttl will have to live with the legacy of Saints getting it wrong in several transfer windows since Ronald Koeman left in the summer of 2016. Since that summer they’ve spent over $200 million in transfer fees alone, and although the sale of Virgil Van Dijk and others negate those fees, players are on very large wages for a club of Southampton’s size which is run to be sustainable. They should be in that group of teams just outside the top six, not battling against the drop.
Something drastic has to change, and Hasenhuttl is now the right man to lead these decisions as he’s rejuvenated many members of the current squad in just five months.
The best thing Saints can now do is let Hasenhuttl have the huge clear out they need. Deadwood needs to be chopped.
Whatever it costs, they need to take the financial hit and let players leave on loan or for good, and let Hasenhuttl start the 2019-20 campaign with a fresh, hungry squad. The way he has brought out the best in Nathan Redmond, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and James Ward-Prowse among others proves his skill in inspiring players he inherited.
Imagine if he could actually add a handful of players he wants…
This season has to be the wake-up call that Saints should have had last season when they survived relegation with one game to go. And that was largely down to Swansea’s slump rather than a good run of their own.
Saints’ academy is one of the best in the league and that is where a lot of their fresh talent can come from. Hasenhuttl has put faith in youth his entire managerial career and that hasn’t changed since he arrived in the Premier League, with Yan Valery, Michael Obafemi, Josh Sims and Ward-Prowse all becoming regulars under him. There are others waiting to break through too.
Hasenhuttl has been brave by cutting out more experienced players and he and Southampton have been rewarded for that.
Now Southampton, who don’t have a chairman or anyone in charge of the football side of the club long-term since Krueger left, must back Hasenhuttl. Krueger brought Hasenhuttl in, but the Austrian is happy to remain at the club and continue to push on, with a new leader or sporting director needed to get things right behind-the-scenes.
Saints can now start to focus on next season and they have Hasenhuttl to thank for that.
“We had to take a lot of points [after taking over in December]. If you told me after our first game against Cardiff, when we were five points behind them [that Southampton would stay up], it’s amazing,” Hasenhuttl said. “We deserve this. We invested a lot in this time and learned a lot. We showed how beautiful we can play. The next step must be to get more clinical in some situations. Two games before the end to be clear is fantastic for us.”