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Hasenhüttl’s death-or-glory rejig revives Southampton’s menace | David Hytner | Football

For Ralph Hasenhüttl and Southampton, the first three months of the season felt like an ordeal but the tone had been set from the very start. The manager took his team to Burnley on the opening weekend, full of optimism and with his first pre-season at the club behind him, only to lose 3-0 after a second-half capitulation.

“You have seven weeks to prepare for the first game and then you lose the first game and that means the seven weeks were shit,” Hasenhüttl says as he prepared for the return fixture with Burnley at St Mary’s on Saturday. “This is a clear message.”

What had been surprising was the way Hasenhüttl set up at Turf Moor. As he had done for the vast majority of his matches since arriving at the club in December 2018, it was with a back three rather than the four defenders and, specifically, the 4‑2‑2‑2 system that he said he favoured at his unveiling press conference. After pre-season, and all that time to work on what Hasenhüttl calls automatisms, it was presumed he would revert to what he liked best on a consistent basis. It did not happen and nor did it happen until the aftermath of the shattering 9-0 home loss to Leicester on 25 October.

Hasenhüttl did not change immediately. He persisted with three centre-halves for the two defeats at Manchester City – in the Carabao Cup and the Premier League – and one more at home to Everton in the league; as ever with various combinations in midfield and attack. But after resetting during the November international break, he went to 4-2-2-2, commonly referred to as plain old 4-4-2 in England, for the visit to Arsenal and it is no exaggeration to say the move has transformed his tenure.

Southampton were unlucky only to draw at the Emirates but their record in the league, starting with that game and playing 4-2-2-2 each time, now reads: W7 D2 L4. They have powered from second bottom to 13th place, a comfortable seven points above the dotted line and, even in the defeats, they have played some good football and created chances.

At which point the question for Hasenhüttl is as follows: why did he lose sight of what he most believed in? “Yeah, good question,” he replies. “I don’t really know the right answer. It’s a lot of influences, [such as] when I played my first home game at the club against Arsenal with a back five and we won 3-2.”

That was Arsenal’s first defeat in 23 matches and it wedded Hasenhüttl a little uneasily to three central defenders, particularly as his first game – away to Cardiff – had ended in a 1-0 defeat with a back four.

“The team starts believing: ‘OK, this is the way it can go, it works,’ and it did work,” Hasenhüttl says. “But in the end, it was not always that aggressive and, if it doesn’t work, you sit very deep and you are passive. That’s not really the way I want to play or the players want to play – sometimes with less possession. That’s the reason why we wanted to change it.”

Ralph Hasenhüttl celebrates Southampton’s Boxing Day win at Chelsea with Ryan Bertrand.

Ralph Hasenhüttl celebrates Southampton’s Boxing Day win at Chelsea with Ryan Bertrand. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

In other words, Hasenhüttl felt he was not being true to himself. There is still an irony, though, in it taking the 9-0 to jolt him back to 4-2-2-2, the system with which he enjoyed such success at RB Leipzig. Or that his team were able to come together so soon after such a devastation.

The left-back Ryan Bertrand says: “It’s strange to say but our pressing really clicked after the 9-0 – beginning at Arsenal. The City games straight after were just about not getting done nine, 10 or 11. Would that click have come without such a terrible result?

“The change of system enables us to have clearer principles in our pressing and positional play. While you have no consistency in your team selection or back four or team shape or what you are going to do when you play out through the thirds or how you are going to press, the talent within the team doesn’t come out.”

Hasenhüttl says in simple terms the 4-2-2-2 gave “one player more in front to give earlier pressure” when compared with three centre‑halves. It gets a team higher up the pitch with regard to their starting positions. But Hasenhüttl brought the detail when he talked about “filters” or layers to the press, which start with filter one up front in the shape of Shane Long and Danny Ings. Filter two is provided by the wide players, Nathan Redmond and normally Stuart Armstrong, with filter three being Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and ordinarily James Ward-Prowse.

“In this system, if we are well organised in behind, we have more filters until the ball comes to our back four,” Hasenhüttl says. “Even the big teams have more problems to build up against us if we do it perfect. Also, if you work for a long time in a shape, you know every weakness, especially against the ball. You have experience of what are the areas you have to protect.”

It is impossible to escape the feeling that after the nine-goal thrashing, Hasenhüttl decided that if he was to go down at Southampton, he would at least do so playing his way. It was a death-or-glory move but now his team look more flexible in the final third, more dangerous on the ball. The change to the collective mindset has been radical.

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