Hasenhuttl's vision for Southampton makes for an exciting future at St Mary's

Period of change at St Mary's

Since their reinstatement into the top flight back in 2012, Southampton have grabbed the headlines for their approach to the Premier League. Playing scintillating, free-flowing football with players nurtured through the academy, or signed for low transfer fees after a unique scouting method was completed, the way Saints have gone about their business in recent years has led to a number of football fans developing a soft spot for the south coast outfit.

A host of exciting young managers, including current Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino - now thought of as one of the world's best coaches - and Ronald Koeman, now in charge of the Netherlands national side, have helped to boost Southampton's stance as an established club in the Premier League.

Players such as Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne, Victor Wanyama, Virgil van Dijk and Toby Alderweireld have all graced the St Mary's turf since their return to the top flight seven years ago, and though all have now moved on to what could be deemed as better things, that is proof of Southampton's shrewdness as a football club throughout the previous decade.

Sadio Mane
Southampton have seen some huge names come and go in recent years.

Soon enough, though, things were bound to catch up with Saints. Clubs simply cannot continue to sell their prized assets to the highest bidder, while gambling on new recruits each season. For years the gamble paid off and Southampton were able to continue impressing in the Premier League, despite a mass exodus at the end of each campaign.

Four consecutive top-eight finishes between 2013-2017 - which included a hugely impressive sixth-placed finish in 2016 - saw the southerners qualify for the Europa League twice, which in turn helped to increase the stature of the club. For years, life was good at Southampton, but ahead of the 2017-18 campaign, after the sacking of manager Claude Puel, things took a nosedive.

Puel was relieved of his duties at the end of the 2016-17 season, despite guiding the club to an eighth-placed finish and reaching the final of the EFL Cup. The style of football the Frenchmen implemented was dull, lifeless and didn't fit the legacy left behind by both Pochettino and Koeman. Looking back, Saints may regret that decision, but there was more to meet the eye when it came to Puel, as proven by his spell at Leicester City this season. He never really connected with the club and ultimately it cost him dearly.

Post-Puel era

After Puel left, Southampton found themselves at a crossroads. They had a decision to make: go with a recognised name in the English game, or take another gamble on a young, foreign manager in the hope that he would follow in the footsteps of Pochettino and Koeman, but at the risk of him turning into another Claude Puel. Sadly for Saints, it was more the latter, but nowhere near as good.

Manager Mauricio Pellegrino was drafted in ahead of the 2017-18 season, having previously taken charge of Valencia and Alaves in La Liga. There were high hopes for the Argentine when he took over at Saints, a man who had endured a successful playing career at some of Europe's biggest clubs - notably Barcelona and Liverpool - Pellegrino was meant to bring a new wave of exciting football to the south coast after such a dismal season under Puel's guidance.

Puel implemented a negative style of football at St Mary's - it was boring and many fans resented him for it, but at least he got results. He obtained a top-eight finish and reached the final of the EFL Cup, where the club eventually lost to Manchester United. Under Pellegrino, there were absolutely no positive signs whatsoever. Needless to say things didn't work out for the former defender and after just 34 games in charge, he was shown the exit door having won just eight of those matches.

Pellegrino
Things didn't quite work out for Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton.

So, what next for Southampton? Well, the Pellegrino gamble failed to pay off so they were on the lookout for a 'safe pair of hands', a proven manager in the Premier League, someone who has a wealth of experience in the English game; someone who had never once been relegated from the top flight. Mark Hughes was the man tasked with steering Saints clear of relegation in early-2018, brought in in March of last year initially until the end of the season.

Safety was the aim, and Hughes delivered albeit by the very skin of his teeth. A narrow 1-0 win away at fellow strugglers Swansea City last May was enough to keep Saints up, which saw Hughes offered a three-year contract at the club. This wasn't the move the supporters wanted, far from it. They were all too aware that their beloved side had only just avoided relegation, and the fact that had it not been for three sides performing even worse than them (West Brom, Swansea and Stoke), they would have been returning to the Championship after a six year absence.

Saints fans knew Hughes wasn't the man to take them forward, it was evident the side weren't playing for him on the sidelines and that he'd lost the dressing room. It was clear that a fresh approach was required, yet the board decided to offer him a permanent contract because they felt they owed it to him for keeping them in the Premier League. Needless to say, Southampton fans' fears were confirmed last December when the club yet again found themselves in the bottom three and in real danger of the drop.

This is a club who had become accustomed to the top half of the division, remember, a club who should be gunning for the Europa League each season, so the fact that they found themselves in such disarray, two seasons on the bounce felt absurd. Sure, the playing staff had steadily decreased in quality over the years, but they still had some good players in the squad who possessed much more quality than they were showing on the pitch every week. Again, a rapid change was needed, the board had to act quick and that's exactly what they did. Welcome, Ralph Hasenhuttl.

Mark Hughes
Mark Hughes saved Saints by the skin of their teeth, and was awarded a three-year contract.

Hasenhuttl

Ralph Hasenhuttl was appointed last December, and since then things have really started to look up for Southampton. Though the mess Hughes left at the club was never going to be an instant fix, the Austrian - formerly of RB Leipzig - has done a fantastic job since taking charge prior to Christmas. Saints ended the campaign in 16th, five points above 18th-placed Cardiff City who were the third and final team demoted to the second-tier earlier this month.

It is not just Premier League survival that Hasenhuttl has achieved since taking the reins at Southampton, though, but a feel good factor that the club so desperately lacked since the departure of Ronald Koeman in 2016. The club were stunned when Koeman left for Everton as it was deemed by many to be a sideways move, but with an increased transfer budget and undoubtedly a much more lucrative contract on offer, Goodison Park seemed a desirable location for the Dutchman.

Since then, Southampton have been in free-fall, a string of underwhelming managers partnered by the continuous flow of players exiting the club has left fans deflated, wondering when things will change. Under the slightly eccentric, hugely passionate Hasenhuttl, though, there is an overwhelming feeling among supporters that the club is returning to its former might.

Last season, with half the campaign already ruined, it was always going to be a case of damaged limitations for the 51-year-old; his job was merely to keep the team up and he did it with relative conviction. Next season, however, the expectation is bigger and rightly so. Southampton will feel as though they have the ability to challenge for a top half finish in the Premier League once again and under the guidance of Hasenhuttl it is clear to see why.

Return to Europe has to be the aim

Following two poor seasons, Southampton's aim for the forthcoming campaign simply has to be obtaining a spot in the Europa League. Acquiring a top six finish is of course adventurous considering the situation Saints have found themselves in throughout the previous two years, but should Hasenhuttl continue to get the better out of players like James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond - both of whom made Gareth Southgate's preliminary England squad for next week's Nations League finals - whilst continuing to nurture young talents such as right-back Yan Valery and striker Michael Obafemi, they have every chance of success next term.

Redmond
Players like Nathan Redmond have been transformed under Hasenhuttl.

The Austrian's arrival has helped the likes of Oriel Romeu, who although has always been a player full of real potential, did become a stagnant member of the squad under previous manager's Pellegrino and Puel. Hasenhuttl has reinstated Romeu into the midfield, reaping the rewards as the former Chelsea man looks back to his best - it is all down to the manager showing faith in him.

Bit-part defender Jan Bednarek is another who has benefitted from Hasenhuttl's appointment. Prior to the managerial changeover, the Poland international had seen chances in the first team limited at St Mary's, but under Hasenhuttl has become an integral member of a Southampton squad which now look to have a promising future.

Elsewhere, Shane Long - who became a figure of ridicule due to his lack of goalscoring - has managed to find the net five times this term, which although doesn't seem all too impressive considering he is a striker, is indicative considering the form he found himself in before Christmas. The Republic of Ireland international scored the quickest goal in Premier League history last month when he opened the scoring against Watford inside seven seconds, a telling sign of his confidence levels at the moment.

Shane Long
Shane Long now holds a Premier League record, scoring inside 7 seconds against Watford.

Nathan Redmond was moved in-field by Hasenhuttl from the wing and enjoyed his most prolific season in a Southampton shirt, scoring nine goals in all competitions after a torrid season on the south coast in 2017-18, where his days at the club appeared to be numbered after a string of poor performances.

Again, this is all down to the manager sticking with his squad, showing faith in them and trusting them to carry out different roles for the team. The 25-year-old, like Ward-Prowse, can consider himself extremely unlucky to miss out on a spot in England's final 23-man squad for the Nations League next week, though it is a huge improvement on the situation they found themselves in 12 months ago.

Ultimately, Hasenhuttl still has a lot to prove at Southampton. He's laid his own foundations at St Mary's, making a positive start to life on the south coast, but with a blank canvas to work with next term and a whole season to get things right, the real sign of his worth will be measured in how Saints perform from August 2019 until May 2020. We're certainly looking forward to watching things unfold.


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