The seasonal variations, in form and appreciation, of the work of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton career is quite extraordinary.
At the start of Gameweek 17, New Years Day, Southampton were level on points with Tottenham, Manchester City and Everton. Four points behind second placed Manchester United and with a game in hand.
Even the most optimistic Saints fan would still have found it unreasonable to sustain such a chase for the top four. That said, with a manager clearly so beloved amongst his squad and milking their abilities dry, in this bizarre season anything was plausible.
However even the most pessimistic fan could likely have not depicted the drop off in 2021. Thirteen matches later, Southampton have added only seven points to their tally. Seven from a potential thirty nine. Only nineteenth placed West Brom have condeded more than their fifty three goals. A +7 goal difference in 2021’s first breaths has slid to -14.
It is hard to argue that Hasenhüttl is a competent, nay, impressive coach. His work to promote Ingolstadt and then stabilise RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga, with an aggressive and energetic brand, speaks as much. However the ups and downs of his tenure at Southampton have induced nosebleeds, so much so that he may seek climbs of more settled waters. Climbs whereby the quality of player may counter for the fatigue of the system and not threaten to collapse so horrifically.
What are we looking for?
Southampton’s search for life after Hasenhüttl is dependent on how secure they are in their image. At times under the Austrian they have threatened to push European places, before stumbling and tumbling within reach of the Championship.
The work of Hasenhüttl, Claude Puel and Ronald Koeman in the last five years is respectable given the lack of squad funding authroised by the club ownership. It was reported in 2020 that majority shareholder Gao Jisheng had put the club up for sale, but a year later there has been little activity to suggest such a move is any closer.
So a coach that is able to work on a tight budget, and maximise the playing potential of his current players, is crucial. The Saints’ squad is surprisingly young, with an average age of 26.1. Yet the spine of the team is ageing and requires replacing. Danny Ings, Ryan Bertrand, Stuart Armstrong, Oriol Romeu and Theo Walcott are all twenty nine and over.
Prioritising the development of youth, from within the club’s structure or recruitment, therefore will benefit the club’s long term sustainability.
As for playing style. Hasenhüttl, Puel and Koeman, as the three more successful coaches since Mauricio Pochettino left in 2014, have three distinctly different philosophies. Whilst this shows that the club are not insistent on one way of playing, their dismissal of Puel after an eighth placed finish in 2017 was ruthless. His slower, possession paced game aesthetic went unappreciated there and at Leicester City. So preferably a quicker, more direct coaching philosophy such as that of Hasenhüttl is desired.
- has shown the ability to work to a tight budget
- favours the promotion of young talent to regenerate a squad
- preferably a fast, attacking approach
Candidate 1: Thomas Frank
Current job: Brentford (England)
Thomas Frank may not be waiting much longer for his first crack at the Premier League. His coaching and management at Brentford have made that clear, and may finally see them promoted for the 2021/22 season. Should that not occur however, his services may be of interest to a pre-existing top flight member.
The Dane inherited the Brentford job in 2018 after Dean Smith’s departure for Aston Villa. Frank had been Smith assistant and at the club since 2016, before which he worked at Brøndby IF, guiding them to third and fourth placed Superliga finishes in his first seasons in senior coaching.
Since Brentford’s promotion to the Championship for the 2014/15 season, they have not finished lower than eleventh, and twice finished inside the play-off places. Last season was the latter time, finishing third and scoring eighty goals as the league’s top scorers. A defeat to Fulham in the play-off final, widely regarded as an inferior team, was a crushing blow. But even after the loss of Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins, they have returned strong once again this season.
The club are lauded for their smart recruitment, looking to the lower English and European leagues to replace star players sold at huge margin. For this strategy to work, and for these unpolished gems to improve and rise to prominence, it relies on the willingness and ability of the manager to utilise them, and demonstrate patience and confidence. Frank embodies these traits perfectly.
His first steps in management were as part of the Denmark national youth set-up, so his understanding of youth development is inherent. Similarly working for a club such as Brentford, overseeing a club wide image of developing youth, is a major plus on his CV.
Tactically, Frank is a flexible operator. A 4-3-3 shape is far and away his preferred system, but from season to season he has also switched to a 3-4-3 with wide and aggressive wingbacks. Within the context of the Championship, Brentford are not at the top of pressing leagues, but their 10.1 passes per defensive action (PPDA) is higher than Southampton’s 11.64. Different leagues of course require different intensities of pressure, but it is a promising comparison.
Similarly the license he gives to his full backs to bomb past the wingers suits Southampton’s current roster. Again they are the league’s top scorers, even over the fantastic Norwich side at the summit, testament to Frank’s philosophy.
An energetic, engaging and bright personality, Frank would be a popular character in the same vein as Hasenhüttl. One win in five has left Brentford miles adrift of the automatic promotion spots, and likely having to battle through the play-offs again. Another heartbreak might be the point that Frank assesses his options. A team of Southampton’s quality and stature would be lucky to welcome a young and vibrant coach such as he.
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Candidate 2: Lucien Favre
Current job: Free agent
Whilst the 2010s were a successful period for Borussia Dortmund, it is easy to forget how bleak the latter part of the decade was getting. Thomas Tuchel succeeded Jürgen Klopp in 2015, before departing acrimoniously two years later. Peter Bosz followed him with a disastrous five month spell, sacked in December 2017 and succeeded by interim Peter Stöger until the end of the season.
The club is characterised by energy, attacking thrust and character. Yet three managers in two four seasons had perhaps pushed this too far. They required a calming influence to steady the ship, whilst maintaining their identity. Lucien Favre was the man to do this.
In his two and a half seasons at Dortmund, Favre recorded successive second placed league finishes, as well as the SuperCup in 2019. In this time Favre blooded through extraordinary talent such as Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland and Achraf Hakimi. The trusted core of Tuchel and Klopp remained, including Marco Reus, Mats Hummels and Lukasz Piszczek. Mixing players at such opposing ends of their playing spectrums served to soothe the noise and uncertainty rumbling in the season before he arrived.
Whilst the attacking firepower of his Dortmund team is well documented, his two seasons saw his team conceded the fourth and third fewest Bundesliga goals respectively. Similarly in his first season at OGC Nice in 2016/17, a third placed finish was supported by conceding only thirty six goals. The defensive calamities such as the 5-1 defeat in his final Dortmund game to VfB Stuttgart were the product of disastrous individual errors that have plagued Dortmund defences for some time now. Such consistency in his defensive record shows that Favre was as much a victim of these errors, as he was any an instigator.
The Swiss is not a ball of energy like Hasenhüttl, nor as obviously charismatic like the other candidates on this list. However he is a respected tactician within the game, and one that managed to calm the Dortmund storm without diluting what it stood for. By the end of his tenure this was a stick to beat him with, and fans will likely be more enthused by the arrival of Marco Rose than they ever were with Favre.
Predicting Southampton’s squad for next season is difficult. Danny Ings will likely have departed, so to either of Jan Bednarek or Jannick Vestergaard. The club’s bizarre, and not entirely successful, transfer startegy also does little to outline what profile of player they might recruit to improve the team, or replace departures.
An experienced manager, with a history of developing young talent quickly, could be the perfect candidate should Hasenhüttl leave. Either in bringing in raw talent to blood in senior football (i.e. Favre’s use of Sancho) or putting faith in the academy within. Favre’s name will be banded around readily this summer, and for jobs with greater stature than Southampton’s. It would make for an intriguing project on his end, but a sensible and intelligent one by the club.
Candidate 3: Jindřich Trpišovský
Current job: Slavia Praha (Czech Republic)
If baseball cap wearing managers, with touchline energy and gusto are the criteria Southampton are looking for, then they should look no further than Jindřich Trpišovský. That the Czech is also a promising, successful and young tactician however is the bigger suggestion of suitability for a top European league.
Trpišovský took his first steps in management in 2011, and over the next six years worked himself up through the Czech leagues to take over one of its top jobs. Slavia Praha.
Slavia had were the reigning First League champions, but manager Jaroslav Šilhavý was sacked in December 2017 after a poor run of results. In stepped Trpišovský, who won a Czech cup in his first half season at Slavia before winning consevutive league titles in he following two years. Slavia sit fourteen points clear at the summit, and halfway through a Europa League quarter final tie with Arsenal.
It is this European campaign that has shone light on Trpišovský’s work. Finishing second in their group ahead of OGC Nice, Slavia were drawn with an impressive Leicester side in the next round. A scintillating 2-0 win in the second leg, inspired by Abdallah Sima, swept away the favoured Premier League team. The following round was a draw against Rangers, undefeated domestically and again favoured over the Czechs. The horrific scenes of racial abuse seen in this tie involving Slavia defender Ondřej Kúdela and Rangers’ Glen Kamara rightly overshadowed any football within the tie. Slavia went through 3-1 on aggregate.
Trpišovský has shown a fearlessness when facing bigger teams in Europe that would serve him well for a job such as Southampton’s. He has been likened to Klopp, not only for his cap wearing, but also in his front-to-back pressing and intensity.
Slavia also have the First League’s youngest squad at only 25.5 years old. The manager’s youthful, collective team vision has stimulated their recent success, that could see them reach the last four of the Europa League.
Trpišovský has already been touted for the vacant Celtic job (coincidentally as well as Favre). He has shown an aptitude for working under a youth-first dynamic and vision, and produced impressive all round results to validate it. To have scalped Sevilla and Leicester City in three European campaigns is a serious indication of his work as an underdog fighting the powerful. Should he overcome Arsenal, currently evenly poised at 1-1 heading into the Slavia home tie, his suitors will grow further.
Southampton’s leap of faith
Since the sacking of Nigel Adkins in 2012, Southampton have been largely fearless in their managerial recruitment.
Pochettino, Koeman, Mauricio Pellegrino and Ralph Hasenhüttl have achieved varying levels of success. All were young, ambitious coaches who embodied the Southampton vision more so than the more conservative appointments of Puel and Mark Hughes in this time.
Hasenhüttl has bee their most high profile appointment. His work at RB Leipzig was highly impressive, and like Koeman and Pochettino before him, will likely springboard back to a club of that European level.
There is no obvious candidate for what the club what, nor need after Hasenhüttl. Each of the three represent huge risks. Frank is a charismatic character, and demonstrated his attacking willing and thrust. However his lack of experience would be a concern, so too that he has fallen at the last hurdle with such a talented Brentford team.
Favre is well regarded, experienced coach capable of delivering incisive and exciting football. Equally, he can create a combative, and solid unit to realistically compete with a team of lower standing than Borussia Dortmund. The risk comes in whether his more removed personality, and frostier aura, can engage the fanbase as Hasenhüttl has. Such engagement has no doubt afforded the Austrian time to right some of the team’s wrongs.
Trpišovský has balanced the context of competition Slavia play in perfectly. Domestically they are a dominant force, holding 62% of the ball and battering teams with nearly fifteen shots per game. In Europe they are in sight of the semi-finals, but have adjusted to seeing just 50.8% of the ball and taking five fewer shots per ninety minutes. The gap in quality between the Czech First League and the Premier League is vast however, and whether such a step is too large for a young coach is arguable.
Each would represent an ambitious turn. They may differ, or even mirror, Hasenhütt’s qualities, but each would bring a new perspective to Southampton. Crucially however, each would also embody what they stand for, and what the fans believe in.