Hasenhuttl pleasantly surprised by Saints’ progress

Ralph Hasenhuttl Southampton
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Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl is a happy man as his young side snatched a late point at Manchester United on Monday.

Michael Obafemi’s 96th minute equalizer grabbed a well-deserved 2-2 draw for Saints, who have lost just one of their six Premier League games since the restart and have a draw against Man United and win over Man City to show for themselves.

After the game at Old Trafford, ProSoccerTalk spoke to Hasenhuttl via Zoom and asked what he learned about his team.

“I learned that we are on a good way and when my team is against such an opponent, one down, is absolutely calm, not panicking, stay in possession, wait for the moment to attack. Very multi-dimensional. Short, long, in-behind, wide, short switches, long switches. I must say in possession, it is quite a good way we are on at the moment,” Hasenhuttl said.

That is more than a hint of surprise in Hasenhuttl’s voice when he mentions being good in possession. His high-pressing tactics do not focus on his team keeping the ball and dictating a slow tempo. They usually hunt the opponents down, score with direct goals and then do it again, and again, and again. That has intensified since he signed a new four-year contract during the lockdown as players know the plan, know what he expects and that familiarity is breeding success.

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Harry Maguire admitted they couldn’t cope with Southampton’s high-pressing and Solskjaer said they are probably the fittest team in the Premier League.

Whatever Hasenhuttl is doing at Southampton, it is working. Danny Ings is scoring goals, defensively they’ve improved and the entire team is working as one to hound and hassle opponents. They are a nasty and annoying team to play against. That is exactly what Hasenhuttl wanted them to become.

With three games of the season to go (against Brighton and Sheffield United at home with a short trip to Bournemouth sandwiched in-between) they could finish in the top 10. More than likely they will finish in 11th but their points tally of 45 is just one short of what they picked up in 2016-17 and since then they’ve been embroiled in two-straight relegation battles.

Hasenhuttl is turning things around and the 9-0 defeat at home to Leicester City in October is of course the reference point as the turning point in their season. Since then a clean slate arrived and it was the wake-up call Saints needed as they’d drifted through managers, star players were bought and then loaned out after not working out and the Gao family, their majority owners, vowed to not keep bankrolling underachievement.

That means the ‘The Southampton Way’ is slowly returning too, as Hasenhuttl knows he will not have vast sums of money to spend on new players and prefers to bring through players through their academy. He likes to give youngsters a chance and there are now a host of names coming through.

Will Smallbone and Obafemi came off the bench and had a big impact at Man United, while Jake Vokins, Nathan Tella and Will Ferry are all ready for minutes in the final games of the season. At the final whistle at Man United, Southampton had four academy players on the pitch and another two on the bench.

We asked Hasenhuttl about Smallbone’s display at Man United and it’s clear he’s a big fan of the young central midfielder and plans to give more youngsters a chance against Brighton, Bournemouth and Sheffield United in the next 10 days.

“Very impressed. I think it is important for the youngsters to get such games like today, where you come on and you need to play it brave,” Hasenhuttl said. “This is what he can do. On the ball he’s fantastic. He’s our future. We must push him. We now have time in the last games to give the more chances to play and this is what we want to do and it is absolutely important for the lads.”

For the first time in a few years, the future is bright for Southampton.