When James Maddison slotted home Leicester City’s ninth of the evening as a freezing, taunting rain whipped around St Mary’s it surely spelt the end of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s brief stint at Southampton.
He was a dead man walking. By all reasonable estimation his P45 was in the post. The jubilant Foxes fans didn’t even bother with the traditional chant reserved for such occasions. Everybody knew he was getting sacked in the morning.
The Austrian had arrived on the South Coast in early December 2018 with an air of mystery to him. He was supposedly nicknamed the ‘Alpen Klopp’ for his love of pressing in the final third while his work at RB Leipzig came with its own reputation. It all looked rather promising for the Saints who had seemingly recruited shrewdly.
And that certainly appeared to be the case as the 52-year-old’s recalibrated side pulled away from a relegation that looked to be a certainty under his predecessor Mark Hughes. Prior to Hasenhuttl’s arrival Southampton had been mired in a winless run that stretched back 11 games but soon the turnovers improved; the passing sequences; the running off the ball. Tactics were rejigged and the form of key players picked up sharply.
Southampton finished the campaign five points clear of the drop and rightfully optimistic about a bright future with their erudite new charge.
Only things went quickly and spectacularly awry and by the time Leicester came to town on a wild October evening the Saints had managed to win just twice in their opening nine games this season. By the time they left, the home side was a national punch-line.
It wasn’t simply that Southampton were beaten 9-0 at home, as humiliating as that was. Freak results can hit anyone. Infinitely worse than even the score-line was the manner in which the team accepted it. They were beaten but also broken; abject and lost.
It was a great surprise then when the Saints board continued to back their man as his side proceeded to lose their next two fixtures. Whatever were they playing at? They were entrusting the restoration of a project to the very person who had sent it to wrack and ruin. This was a colossal gamble.
That Hasenhuttl has somehow transformed his team and so dramatically is to his enormous credit, while his players too deserve a huge dollop of kudos. The largest share of the acclaim, however, should go to Gao Jisheng, the club’s chairman and his board, for sticking with their appointment through the thin times and going against an established way of thinking that has governed football for aeons: if in trouble start from scratch.
Since the nadir of that Leicester trouncing, the Saints have won seven of their 14 games. They lie third in the Premier League form table. This week’s 2-0 triumph at Crystal Palace was their fourth successive away win too.
Revived under a 4-2-2-2 formation that the coach initially enjoyed success with before abandoning it unwisely is a side that poses a genuine threat up front in the form of 14-goal Danny Ings and bolstered too by a defence now more than capable of grinding out clean sheets. They are a formidable and buoyant proposition with one eye on finishing within the top ten come May.
None of this seemed remotely possible just a few short months ago and promotes as it does the benefit of showing patience in a manager. Will others look, listen and learn? Let’s hope so. It’s unlikely they will, but let’s hope so.