Southampton are reaping the rewards of their loyalty to manager Ralph Hassenhütle, and the calm and intelligent process that facilitated his appointment writes Adam Walton.
In a footballing world where articles are written about which club has “won the transfer window,” Southampton
would not have earned many headlines at the beginning of this season. The Hampshire club’s most notable
signing was 31 year old Theo Walcott, a player famed for not quite living up to his early promise and maligned for
his apparent loss of pace during his unsuccessful spell with Everton. It appeared another season of midtable
obscurity beckoned for the Saints.
Yet, 12 games in, Southampton sit in fourth position, three points off top spot and set for their customary
December home win against Arsenal on Wednesday. The key man behind this team of mid-level talent punching
above their collective weight is their manager, Ralph Hassenhütl. The Austrian has transformed a team of
relegation scrappers into one of the most lethal teams in the Premier League
As his nickname, “The Alpine Klopp”, suggests, Hassenhütl employs a pressing style similar to that of champions
Liverpool. Attacks are centred on winning possession in the oppositions final third and creating overloads in
transition to create chances whilst the defending team are out of position. Hassenhütl even encourages his team
to play balls at opposition players that are difficult to control, creating more opportunities to press.
Whilst this style, and the signature 4-2-2-2 formation that Southampton use are crucial to their newfound
success, they’re not dogmatic in their approach. If the press doesn’t get you, they have the dead-ball genius of
James Ward-Prowse and the nearly two metres tall Jannik Vestergaard to threaten at set-pieces. It’s also clear
that Hassenhutl is coaching his players, with the likes of Che Adams, Oriol Romeu and the aforementioned
Walcott all improving considerably under the Austrian, a trait that (shockingly) cannot be attributed to all
managers in the league.
The transformation under Hassenhütl has been extraordinary, yet is made more admirable when considering the
footballing trends Southampton resisted when appointing him.
Football, like any industry, is run by copycats. If something works for one club, you can guarantee that about 20
others will be peaking over their shoulders to catch a glimpse at their answers (or just buying the answers, as is
often the case). This certainly happens with managerial appointments.
Since the turn of the century, managers have become dispensable, being hired and fired at an alarming rate.
Gone are the days of Sir Alex Ferguson spending 25 years in charge. Managers have less and less room for
failure, with success expected almost instantaneously by both boardrooms and fans. Carlo Ancelotti was fired
midway through a season by Chelsea, the year after winning the double, and the fans supported the decision.
Enter Luis Enrique and Zinidine Zidane, both legendary players turned managers at Barcelona and Real Madrid
respectively. There are multiple advantages to appointing a club legend as a manager. The manager instantly
receives the respect of the players based on past glories, they understand how to create a winning dressing
room and, most importantly, their history buys time with fans. A defeat can be seen as part of the process as
opposed to a betrayal by an disinterested outsider. It also helped that both Enrique and Zidane weren’t tactically
illiterate. From 2015 to 2019, these former players managed their respective clubs to a joint five Champions
The unoriginal overlords of football, seeing the success of the returning legend, followed suite, seeing the likes of
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta hired in the last 18 months. All were employed to buy fan
patience for their incoming managers, particularly in the case of Chelsea and Manchester United, both of which
have horrid manager job security. The result is a number of managers who, in the best case, are underqualified
and, in the worst case, are evidently incapable to be managing the massive clubs who employ them.
Compare this to Southampton’s appointment of Hassenhütl in 2018. They ensured the man they were appointing
had a football philosophy that matched their club; ever since Pochettino, the Saints have been a club associated
with high pressing, high risk football. Hassenhutl certainly shares these values. They also made sure they got
someone with experience at the top level. Taking a newly promoted club to a second place finish in the
Bundesliga, like the Austrian did with RB Leipzig, undoubtedly qualifies.
Most importantly, however, the Southampton board stuck by their man. In 2019, Hassenhütl’s Southampton lost
9-0 at home to Leicester. Understandably, the media and fans called for Hassenhütl to seek other employment.
But the board stuck by their man, and are currently reaping benefits for their loyalty. They have one of the best
managers in the league, who they found through the daring and inventive policy of (wait for it)… intelligent
appointment and calm internal decisions.
One wonders why the bigger spenders in the league insist on knee jerk and trendy appointments, especially
considering the massive outlay on playing staff. Despite this spending, the big teams all suffer from similar
problems; a reliance on one style of play, uncertainty with regards to style, inability to defend set pieces and
counter attacks. These are problems Southampton avoid with grace, and will no doubt miss out on Champions
League qualification not through lack of quality coaching, but the usual financial disparity mid-level Premier
League clubs suffer.
Yet the above problems seem so avoidable, if the Big Six clubs in England employed a policy of recruitment
similar to Southampton. It seem irresponsible to appoint inexperienced managers, when the quality and Premier
League experience of Hassenhütl is there for all to see. And one shudders to think how good a team like
Chelsea would be with a manager as clear minded and intelligent as Hassenhütl would be.