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Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton: In-depth analysis of how his team have evolved

Shortly after being appointed manager of Southampton, Ralph Hasenhuttl sat down to speak in front of Britain’s media for the first time.

Back then, the Austrian was clean-shaven and fresh-faced, carrying significant cachet from his time at RB Leipzig. His methods, we were told, aligned with how football was evolving, sharing the German ideology of gegenpressing and increased verticality.

He was a coach that honed his principles in the Bundesliga and cut a tall, imposing figure on the touchline, clad in a tracksuit and donning a baseball cap. Lazily, perhaps, this led to the moniker “the Alpine Klopp”, which was inevitably brought up in his introductory press conference.

“I have heard about it,” replied Hasenhuttl. “I don’t like it so much; I want to be my own character.”

Similarities did and still do exist, though. Both are big on counter-pressing and, internally, often act as the emotional bellwether for their teams.

The core principles of Hasenhuttl’s Leipzig and what he has aimed to establish at Southampton are a choreographed, maintained press, irrespective of formation, players leaving runners to go towards the ball, forward passing and a middle-centric style in possession, working the ball into the “red zone”.

With Hasenhuttl embarking on his fourth full season as manager, how have Southampton evolved? And are they better or worse for it? Here The Athletic explains…

2018-19 season — The pressing basics

Entering the building before the midpoint of the seemingly doomed 2018-19 campaign, Hasenhuttl’s first task was to install an immediate blueprint, straightforward enough for players to quickly understand and effective enough to make it work. He needed to address the weak spots had led to the demise of his predecessor, Mark Hughes: fitness, intensity in press and chance creation.

“It took a couple of sessions to get used to the style,” former Southampton midfielder Callum Slattery tells The Athletic. “It was such a different way of playing. You’d be asked to leave a runner and stay in the space, or go to press and leave your man. Your first thought is not to let your runner go, which is how everyone was brought up in England. But when he came in, it was the complete opposite. It took a couple of weeks to get used to.”

Briefly, Hasenhuttl trialled his preferred 4-2-2-2 shape from Leipzig, before an early prognosis showed that Southampton’s subpar one-v-one defending was damaging every other aspect of the side. He felt compelled to incorporate an additional defender for cover.

It did, however, leave his implementation of a pressing system hamstrung at times, with teams exploiting the drawbacks of a back-five shape through switches of play and overloads out wide. Central midfield lacked bodies and was often overrun — not conducive to a front-foot style out of possession.

Territory control is a localised possession metric that charts where Southampton were more or less dominant than the opponent across all areas of the pitch. Any zone coloured red in the visualisation below indicates they had over 55 per cent possession. Areas coloured blue were controlled by opponents, while grey is deemed neutral.

As the pitch on the top left shows, Hasenhuttl’s team had next to no control in the attacking half, with areas either completely coloured blue or grey. This underlined dysfunction in their build-up. In the meantime defensively, they were exploited down both flanks.

An offshoot to the lack of midfield authority was the difficulty in performing choreographed patterns of play. Changes in system and personnel further exacerbated things, stopping partnerships from forming.

Southampton’s passing network from the 2018-19 season shows a distinct absence of structure with the ball. The most used shape was a 3-4-2-1 (shown below as a 3-4-3), which would become a 5-3-2 out of possession. For any one position in the formation to establish enough of a passing connection with another position to earn a line on the graphic, they would need to complete five open play passes per 90 minutes.

As the passing network on the left demonstrates, especially when compared to the next three seasons, almost no position made the required amount, hence the lack of connections. 

Playstyle wheels are an effective tool to gain a general overview of a team’s profile. The further a wheel extends outwards, the more proficient a team is in performing a requisite skill. For instance, every playstyle wheel from his three and a half seasons reaffirms Hasenhuttl’s various pressing systems (shaded red) are his bread and butter in coaching parlance, ranking highly for the start distance of Southampton’s possessions, their counter-press and their high press.

Even with a rudimentary approach in possession (shown by the scarcity of the brown-shaded facets, detailing progressive passing, switches and dribbling) Southampton’s intensity without the ball instantly improved.

Percentiles are a straightforward way of showing how a team ranks in comparison to other clubs within the dataset. For example, a side with an overall impact in the 90th percentile means they have a greater overall impact than 90 per cent of teams. When analysing Southampton’s pressing data, they stayed between the 70th and 80th percentiles throughout the season.

2019-20 season — Hasenhuttl’s reset

One day — Saturday, November 23, 2019 — would prove a precursor to the next 18 months of Hasenhuttl’s tenure. Southampton were away to Arsenal and lower than a worm’s belly. Another start to a season was marred by glaring defensive and psychological fragilities.

In the six games prior, they had taken a solitary point, conceded 23 goals (nine of them against Leicester City) and only scored six in return. They were suffering the biggest problem any manager could have. Not being able to defend or attack. The machine Hasenhuttl had long intended to build, once he had the correct tools, was collapsing at its very foundations.

The November international break, a two-week period before the visit to north London, afforded respite. This, in turn, became the Austrian’s very own sliding-doors moment, opting to reset and return to his core values. Defensive concerns were exchanged for a more progressive, front-foot 4-2-2-2 (shown below as a 4-4-2), putting the same remits on players as he did at Leipzig. This was quintessential Hasenhuttl; two up front and his two wide players operating in an area of the pitch later coined “the red zone”.

Southampton were unfortunate not to win that day, drawing 2-2 with Arsenal and adopting that shape for the next 33 games in all competitions.

The departures of players such as Charlie Austin, Manolo Gabbiadini, Jordy Clasie and Steven Davis brought the squad age down, with Hasenhuttl making it clear he required younger, more impressionable players to execute such a highly-intensive system.

By the midpoint of the season, there had been six Premier League matches that had registered an overall pass completion rate of below 70 per cent… all of which involved Southampton. Hasenhuttl often likened games to “ping pong” with the side increasingly comfortable in finding calm in chaotic pockets of the 90 minutes.

In a middle-centric shape, where play was often funnelled into the most congested area of the pitch called the “red zone” — the space between an opposition’s centre-backs and central midfielders — risk in possession was substantially escalated, leading to matches full of turnovers. By this point, however, Southampton’s pressing had become more choreographed and concerted, enabling them to thrive in these situations.

Southampton had also begun to gain a foothold in midfield areas. This resulted in the team making the second highest number of tackles in the Premier League (706).

As the image below shows, Southampton’s press functioned at its optimal towards the back end of 2019-20 and the start of the 2020-21 season, before a subtle downslope in pressing intensity in the years after. Nevertheless, casting your eye across the Hasenhuttl era shows a remarkable consistency in pressing intensity over time.

Southampton completed the 12th most passes of any Premier League side that season, with a lowly passing accuracy rate of 73 per cent. Rather than dissuading Hasenhuttl, more relevant metrics emboldened his work. A case in point being Southampton making the most passes into the final third (2,361) from any season under the Austrian, as well as the most shots and goals from fast breaks (18).

Passing connections were becoming established. Southampton’s back four were now finding the central midfield pairing of James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg/Oriol Romeu more frequently, with the two full-backs (Ryan Bertrand and Kyle Walker-Peters) proving high and regular outlets.

Southampton’s playstyle wheel highlights an acute upturn in chance creation, with Hasenhuttl’s change of shape taking a player out of defence and adding another option in more advanced areas.

Field tilt metrics are a simple way of showing the territorial dominance between teams, measuring the share of possession one side has, but only taking into account touches or passes in the attacking third. In short, it is the type of possession that matters.

This was a clear area of growth and underpinned a greater attacking verve in the team. Even if Southampton have never worn the hallmarks of a possessional side under Hasenhuttl, often ranking in and around the 30th percentile (shaded brown for dribbling, switches and progressive passes).

2020-21 season — Adding layers in possession

Although Hasenhuttl chiefly stuck with the 4-2-2-2 shape, efforts to evolve were made during the winter, when the side were decimated by injury and toiling in one of their inherent nosedives in form. Significantly, he stayed with a back four throughout and was keen to maintain the press, despite it showing signs of heading in a downward trajectory.

Coupled with players a year older, the arrival of 31-year-old Theo Walcott raised the average age to 26 years and six months, the eighth oldest in the league.

A COVID-condensed season without supporters ostensibly altered Hasenhuttl’s in-game decisions and incorporated more nuanced elements into Southampton’s build-up play. The broader drop in intensity throughout the Premier League enhanced layers to their work in possession, attempting to fine-tune into a more patient, configured unit. Southampton made nearly 500 passes fewer into the attacking third (1,866), but recorded a better accuracy rate of 79 per cent — Hasenhuttl’s emphasis on verticality had been exchanged for subtly.

Jannik Vestergaard’s prominence at left-sided centre-back upgraded the blueprint, with clear patterns of play detectable. Several small features could be seen from game to game, such as:

  • A raking, diagonal switch from Vestergaard to Walker-Peters, who stayed on the shoulder of the opposing left-back
  • Stuart Armstrong’s diagonal dribbles into the red zone freed up space for Walker-Peters to overlap
  • The in-to-out runs from the two strikers worked the channels and vacated the central space for the No 10s to drive into
  • One of the central midfielders dropped into a full-back position when the centre-backs had the ball
  • A full-back (usually Bertrand) would become a quasi-centre-back, creating a 3-5-2 in possession

All of the above resulted in Southampton establishing the most connections between players from any season under Hasenhuttl. The left side was particularly influential in this respect, with Vestergaard and Bertrand providing the most ball progression. As the passing network shows, Bertrand was adept in linking with players around him and forming triangles.

Another observation to note is the goalkeeper (mainly Alex McCarthy) was now becoming more involved in play. This is shown by the passing lines with the two centre-backs and the enlarged circle shaded red. Strikingly, opposition sides only held territory dominance in one area of Southampton’s half.

Through improved ball retention, Southampton were forging a style better equipped to control the tempo of matches. Not having to press as frequently ensured their intensity, when at their most polished, remained high. The 2020-21 campaign was one of their more aggressive across all areas of the pitch.

Adopting a defensive line so high it made the Empire State Building look flat, Hasenhuttl’s defensive approach quickly garnered a sense of all or nothing — the 5-2 loss at home to Tottenham, where Son Heung-min scored four virtually identical goals after running behind the backline and into cavernous amounts of space, was an illustration of the latter. The playstyle wheel from the season rates highly on high defence actions and reflects the bold shift.

The slight regression in high press and counter-press metrics is the start of a broader trend, which suggests the start of the campaign was when they maxed out in energy output. From there on in, a gradual downslope emerged in their pressing intensity and remains levelled out between the 60th to 70th percentile.

High transitions — where a team shoots at goal soon after winning the ball high — dropped, before falling off a cliff over the course of the campaign and hampering chance creation.

On a side note, regardless of the refinement in possession, Southampton still struggled to play through the thirds, rating markedly low for progressive passes.

2021-22 season — A return to pragmatism

Vestergaard and Bertrand, the predominant ball progressors out of defence, had now left. Hasenhuttl was also tasked with finding a way to compensate for Danny Ings’ departure, who had been vital in the side outperforming their xG the year before. This would, ultimately, lead to dialling back their possessional work and reinstalling a greater streak of pragmatism.

Southampton became looser and less accurate in possession, leaning more towards “percentage football” than precise football — demonstrated by the 157 more crosses they put into the box. Southampton were also the sixth-most dispossessed side (365) and lost the ball more than any other season in Hasenhuttl’s tenure.

A shortfall in quality forward options forced them to adjust focus and build from the bottom up (akin to what they are trying to do this pre-season). Hasenhuttl recognised the need to reattach defensive stabilisers, hoping to limit the number of cheap goals given away.

Thus, Hasenhuttl routinely switched to a back three/five last season and lessened the reliance on a team press. Southampton were 13th for tackles (602) completed last season — a pronounced, if not symbolic fall from the two campaigns before where they ranked second. Their PPDA data was, however, the sixth-best in the league, restricting oppositions to 12.1 passes before making a defensive action.

At this stage, Southampton’s player recruitment took a new direction of travel. 18-year-old Tino Livramento signed and featured heavily, as did 19-year-old Armando Broja. Both helped to bring the average age down to the third youngest in the Premier League at 25 years and seven months.

Central to explaining Southampton’s malfunctions last term was their loosening control in midfield areas, a repercussion of the intensity and overall press bottoming out. While the previous two seasons showed gradual gains in the centre of the pitch, a regression ensued and proved comparable to Hasenhuttl’s first half a season in charge.

It left those in midfield vulnerable and asked to cover more space with fewer opportunities to break up play. Such a lack of control had far-reaching ramifications in efforts to play through the phases.

It is evident, given the once transitional nature of the side, that mobility became an issue and may have been a determining factor in why they sought a more agile, ambulant profile of midfielder, in Romeo Lavia and Joe Aribo, this summer.

Opposing sides became more effective in getting into dangerous crossing positions down either flank, particularly towards the byline. Southampton’s physical power plateaued and played a role in them only coming from behind once last season to win. 

Despite underperforming their xG by 8.2 goals and being victims of routine profligacy, it was not all bad. Southampton equalled the same number of big chances missed (42), the joint-sixth in the Premier League. Only those who ended up finishing in the top five (and they naturally create more, anyway) had more.

As a consequence of Hasenhuttl deviating away from such a middle-centric, fixed shape, build-up play became more varied. There was better balance at both right- and left-back, with Livramento’s impact showing a notable increase in pass value down the right side.

Another cause for optimism was Southampton’s growing strength in their counter-pressing. This yardstick, measured by winning the ball back within eight seconds of losing it, was helped by the start distance of the defence remaining high. The side mostly sat in a compact mid-block, with the vertical distance between the deepest and highest outfield player relatively short.

However, low defence shows how proficient a defending team are when the ball is near their goal. Southampton ranked at their lowest since Hasenhuttl’s first few months in charge. When the opposition bypassed the press (which became more and more often) they then tended to create chances at an alarming rate. While Southampton have never registered in the top half for this, such deterioration left them regularly disadvantaged.

Almost four years in and Hasenhuttl’s ideals have been tested throughout. His pressing values remain his fundamental coaching attribute, but he has continued to experience difficulties in putting layers on top for any sustained length of time. The priority for the 2022-23 season will be to double down on his key values, re-energise the press and, hopefully, have the tools to implement a more sustained way of playing.

(Top image: Getty Images)

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