It was only a matter of time before one of the Premier League’s early bolters lost a length or two on the leaders, but Southampton’s fall from grace has been more furious than the rest. Five straight top-flight defeats has seen the Saints slip from European hopefuls to mid-table hangers-on, and the demands of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s system may mean a recovery is beyond their reach.
The south-coast club can be forgiven some drop-off in form due to several mitigating factors, namely an unforgiving fixture list at the start of 2021 and frustrations caused by injuries. However, reducing risk of injury is also directly affected by activity outside of matchdays, begging the question as to whether Southampton’s strength in their unyielding intensity will become their great weakness.
9-0 loss to United not the Saints' lowest point
A low was reached at the start of February when, for the second time in two seasons, Hasenhüttl’s side conceded nine in a Premier League fixture, this time at Old Trafford. The 9-0 mauling at the hands of Manchester United was more forgivable than last term’s loss at home to Leicester City, given Southampton saw both Jan Bednarek and full Premier League debutant Alex Jankewitz sent off:
As damaging as that defeat might have been, it was the 3-2 loss at Newcastle United four days later that more effectively highlighted the draining effect that’s ravaged Southampton of late. They failed to get a result at St. James’ Park despite playing the last 40 minutes a man up thanks to Jeff Hendrick’s dismissal, which increased to a two-man cushion following Fabian Schär’s injury with a quarter-of-an-hour to go.
Far away from the inadequacies in attack, it was their defensive frailties shown in the first half—before Southampton had any kind of overlap—that displeased Hasenhüttl most:
The trip north-east did provide slight consolation in the form of a debut goal for Takumi Minamino, but it’s the club’s defense and midfield—or the lack of options therein—that have been most adversely affected. It wasn’t until the 81st minute that Hasenhüttl made his first (and only) change at Newcastle, but the manager’s lack of faith in his bench, even one heavily affected by injuries, is something we’ll address later on.
It shouldn’t be quickly forgotten that the Saints marched into the new year with a 1-0 win over Liverpool, even if that feat means slightly less against this season’s version of the Reds.
That January 4 result was the most recent clean sheet they’ve kept in the Premier League, going from 19 goals conceded in their first 17 games to 18 conceded in their last five. Granted, that Old Trafford trouncing is an outlier that throws the trend out of whack, but the second-minute sending off of Jankewitz—in the starting XI due to a desperation that might have been avoided—was one significant ripple in increasingly treacherous waters for Southampton.
Southampton's intense style accounted for success and downfall
Hasenhüttl’s favor towards a gegenpress style of play has been remarked upon since his arrival at the club in 2018. Considering the physical demands of that labor, perhaps it wasn’t too great a shock that Southampton finished third in the Premier League last term when narrowing focus to the fixtures following the coronavirus suspension (they ended the campaign 11th overall). The Saints benefited from an ‘off-season’ phase of respite from match conditions, but they won’t receive the same break period in 2020-21.
Danny Ings tends to be the headline-grabber at St. Mary’s, but strike partner Che Adams was another key part of the team’s early success this term as he adapted to the forward press. The former Birmingham City star remarked upon numbers nerd Hasenhüttl as a somewhat intense figure to train under, fixated on his players covering a certain distance before sessions can end, per Hampshire Live:
“He [Hasenhuttl] is mad on stats. If we have done enough running, then the session will end, but obviously if we haven't hit those targets, then we keep training until we do,” Adams said.
“I'm not massively into stats, some of the other lads are, but it is good to see where we are at and what we can build on for next time.”
A robust dedication to these methods has brought Hasenüttl this far, but one wonders if the Austrian has adapted enough in the aftermath of a disjointed 2020 to counter fatigue that seemed destined to affect every squad—especially those on the more restricted side—this campaign.
Of the 28 players Southampton have used in the Premier League this season, 12 have made one start or fewer. This suggests a reliance on a relatively small group compared to some of their peers, who are able to rotate more often but are also motivated to do so out of choice.
Flexibility is key for a Hasenhüttl turnaround
Teams in comparable predicaments near Southampton in the standings include Crystal Palace and Leeds United. Eagles manager Roy Hodgson has endured an injury list as long as any other this season, but the wide pool of players he’s willing to start has eased the burden tremendously. January signing Jean-Philippe Mateta is the only Palace player to have appeared in the league with fewer than two starts, and that focus on depth will pay dividends as the season tires.
Leeds counterpart Marcelo Bielsa has long held a reputation for relying on a particularly small sample of starters, but his substitution tactics counteract that wear and tear. Bielsa’s subs have played on average 26 minutes per game this season—only Sheffield United’s replacements (27 minutes) have played more—while Southampton rank joint-second-lowest in that field (17 minutes).
Though demanding through his tactics, Hasenüttl is also responsible for those stylistic transitions that have made the team a more fierce top-half contender during his time at the club. Southampton average more tackles than any other club this season (19.3 per game) and are trendsetters in midfield pressing, but there’s a sense the team has grown somewhat rigid in its thinking when ‘Plan A’ doesn't succeed:
It’s to be expected that Southampton aren’t ‘a crossing team’ by definition. Their two primary strikers top out at 5’10”and both prefer to have ball played in front of them in attack, so unless there are plans to promote 6’6” Jannik Vestergaard as a frontman, that’s unlikely to change.
However, that’s one point of action where Hasenhüttl should question whether his tactics have become all too easy to figure out. Ings—who, as a sidenote, is a mean header of the ball—scored six goals in his first eight Premier League appearances this season, but the Euro 2021 hopeful has now netted only once in his last nine —the winner against former employers Liverpool.
Of course, we shouldn’t glaze over the fact that players like Oriol Romeu, Vestergaard and Kyle Walker-Peters have been missing in key areas, with that trio playing only a handful of combined games during the recent losing stretch. But it’s no secret that proper planning and depth are two major factors over the course of a season, particularly for a manager whose blueprint asks so much of those playing under him.
Effectively harrying the opposition out of possession is a chief priority for the Saints, but that devout dedication requires energy that will inevitably run lower in the coming months. The club’s injury problems up to now have been unfortunate, but greater impetus is needed in fine-tuning alternative strategies—not to mention alternative personnel—in case the worst is yet to come.