When Danny Rohl, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s closest aide upon arrival, left to join Bayern Munich and work under Hansi Flick on the eve of the 2019-20 campaign, Southampton did not have a replacement ready.
With Rohl’s departure regarded as a sudden, ill-timed turn of events, it took nearly a month for Richard Kitzbichler to come in, by which time two Premier League fixtures had passed and ended in defeat. Even though Kitzbichler was officially appointed as a direct successor to Rohl, he ultimately became a de facto replacement, with his chief expertise lying in video analysis.
Previously, Rohl had been Hasenhuttl’s closest footballing cousin in a coaching sense; a kindred spirit in how he saw the game evolving and the man tasked with conveying the Southampton’s manager’s beliefs on the training ground every day.
Rohl, despite being only 29 at the time of joining, would tend to lead sessions at Staplewood. Both he and Hasenhuttl were wedded to highly transitional principles, introducing new pressing structures as they attempted to shift Southampton from a team trapped in dysfunction into one that could outlast opponents.
These were nuanced, innovative beliefs for a club whose last three managers — Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes — turned out to be well behind the times. It also appeared to be a huge benefit for Hasenhuttl to have a colleague who understood the intricacies of his coaching style.
Rohl was well-liked internally and counter-balanced Hasenhuttl’s franker approach — the Southampton manager is not exactly the type to indulge players. The pair would check and challenge each other during breakfast, afternoon jogs, after training sessions and at matches. It created a dynamic that brought instant results and cohesion to the team.
Pertinently, in his seven months at the club, Rohl would spend large periods of games alongside Hasenhuttl on the touchline, either just behind him or taking the lead in certain situations. No coach since has had such obvious autonomy during matches.
Ever since Rohl’s exit, an underlying rumbling from supporters was a perceived lack of challenge from coaching staff, amplified by Hasenhuttl often being a solitary figure on the touchline. It was a matter of speculation as to whether this vignette came from Hasenhuttl’s reluctance for support or coaches not having the requisite self-power to provide counsel.
The end of last season coincided with Southampton’s lowest ebb. After one win from the final 12 games, something had to give.
Inside the club, it was widely accepted a shake-up was required, starting with a re-configuration of Hasenhuttl’s think tank. Craig Fleming, Kelvin Davis and Dave Watson were sacked, with Ruben Selles, Alex Clapham and Carl Martin, who stepped up from his work with the club’s under-18s, their successors.
“They’ve done a good job so far,” Hasenhuttl tells The Athletic. “It is absolutely important the guys get a lot of responsibility from me and they pay it back. We are a team that is screened by success. When we have this, then everything is good.”
Sources say new impetus was needed at the training ground and a new coach to have the ear of Hasenhuttl was required, although it is thought Fleming did to some extent. It was felt having the same coaching staff for the past three years, performing sessions from the “SFC playbook” and operating under a highly-intensive pressing structure had grown tired.
To ensure functional change, a new stimulus became a necessity, with Selles bringing a wealth of experience to the table despite being only 39.
The process of employing Selles, formerly Copenhagen’s assistant manager, as Southampton’s new first-team lead coach in June was led by director of football operations Matt Crocker and chief executive Martin Semmens.
Selles was Hasenhuttl’s first choice and the first of the three appointments announced. It is understood Selles met Hasenhuttl before being officially confirmed. Last year, the Spaniard helped Copenhagen win their first league title in three years and qualify for the UEFA Conference League’s last-16.
Kitzbichler remains part of Hasenhuttl’s staff but Selles is now the No 2 and the coach closest to the mould of Rohl.
#SaintsFC is pleased to announce the appointment of Rubén Sellés as First Team Lead Coach, subject to work visa clearance.
Welcome, Rubén! 🤝
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) June 10, 2022
In July’s friendly against Monaco, Selles sat next to Hasenhuttl in the dugout while Kitzbichler and Clapham had their left ears wired up as they communicated with the first-team analysts watching from a high vantage point.
Martin, interestingly, sits next to the analysts, armed with a pen and paper and notes his observations. They are then fed back to the bench.
“He (Martin) is very responsible for our in-possession game,“ said Hasenhuttl. ”We get from him the right information in what we can do with the ball, where the space is and how we can use it more.“
Shortly after returning for pre-season, Southampton’s squad were quickly impressed by Selles. Those with close ties to players likened the emergence of Selles as a wiping of the slate, with the hope that an external appointment would come in with a fresh pair of eyes and, in turn, strengthen a meritocratic selection policy.
Selles can speak four languages, including fluent Russian, picked up from his time at second-tier side Shinnik Yaroslavl in 2010. He has, however, been described as being warm and positive with a distinct recognition of playing football to enjoy it.
He is understood to elevate standards and is keen for his dedication to be reflected in team results but does not treat the Southampton squad like an army. His engagement with players, as a result, is regarded as a key strength of his.
“I really enjoyed having him,” says Jakob Ankersen, who played at AGF Aarhus when Selles was the No 2 (between 2018 and 2020). He was such a good guy. He was a friend to me but in a professional way. He always made sure we were focused in training but outside of it, we could talk and have fun. He would ask about your family and other things in your personal life.”
He adds: “You don’t usually go to your manager if it’s about family stuff; it’s pretty rare. But with the assistant coach, I think it’s really important to have a guy you can go to in difficult times, like when a family member is sick. You can always talk to Ruben and he understands. He is just so easy to talk to.”
Those close to Selles say he is enjoying the move to Southampton, after a “special” journey to the Premier League.
Undertaking his UEFA Pro License at the age of 25 and starting out as a fitness coach at Greek side Aris Thessaloniki in 2008, Selles has lived a somewhat nomadic coaching career. Southampton will be the 10th club and seventh country where Selles has worked in a senior capacity — he only turned 39 last month.
“We met back in 2012,” agent Alexander Buberman tells The Athletic. “My former colleague and I went to present a few players to Neftchi Baku (in Azerbaijan). During our conversation, they said to us, ‘We need to find a really good physical conditioning coach’ and asked us if we knew anyone.
“That’s when we called Ruben. He was at Villarreal working in the academy at the time but Ruben’s wife was about to give birth, and he was in the hospital with her. He said he couldn’t fly immediately but the club really wanted him. In the end, Ruben waited until she gave birth and flew out the next day.”
Varied roles across different levels of football has given several wrinkles to Selles’ coaching armoury. He has changed jobs and countries frequently (the longest he has been at one team is two and a half years), which exposed him to different styles, cultures and hierarchies.
Buberman adds: “When he was in Azerbaijan, the feedback I got was that the players made huge progress in performance. Straight away, he paid attention to the small details and was thorough in his work. He came to a new club but he wanted to educate himself. He always wants to progress.”
A career theme has been Selles’ unmistakeable willingness to test himself at every available opportunity. From leaving Neftchi Baku, where he became assistant manager, to take up the post as chief analyst at Stromsgodset in Norway, Selles does not, necessarily, see himself as a perennial No 2. His two jobs to date in his homeland of Spain were as a fitness coach at Villarreal in 2009 and a 152-day spell as manager of Valencia’s under-18s in 2020. “I’ve always thought that he will be a head coach somewhere,” Ankersen admits. “I think he has the qualities.”
Selles is thought to have been a coach ahead of the curve a decade ago, understanding the benefits of using advancements in technology in his methods. Analysis was detailed and relevant to players, while his propensity to accrue marginal gains was and still is, indicative of his career trajectory. Born in Valencia, Buberman describes Selles “as a coach who started from scratch”.
“Ruben has always wanted to take it to the next level,” he says. “I just think he’s so motivated to reach the top. I think his goal is probably to work for a top-four club like a Liverpool or a Manchester United. That’s why he is selective on how to get there.”
Ankersen smiles. “He was absolutely crazy about analysis. He would talk to players individually and make clips, showing examples of what he wanted from them. If you were confused, he would explain and break down a game.”
Following brief spells at Stromsgodset and Qarabag, Selles joined Aarhus, a Danish Superliga side who were struggling to break into the top six. Since winning promotion in 2015, Aarhus had never reached the 50-point mark in the top flight. A year later, they finished third with 64 points and went on to qualify for the Europa League.
“It was pretty funny because when Ruben came, things just changed,” Ankersen continues. “The club hadn’t won anything in 25 years and it was always an up and down team. But when he came, he started with basic drills. He would work with the back four, teaching them when to push up, when to drop off, and working together in a compact shape.
“All this basic shit that people hate to do; but it’s really important. He just did it and didn’t care if these boring drills took 40 minutes or more. It had a really good effect and the tactical changes he installed were the reasons why the two years together were successful, and ended with us finishing in our best position in the 21st century.”
“I respect him,” says Buberman. “I believe his coaching trajectory is an example for anyone who comes from a small town. He’s a very happy-go-lucky person who is so eager to succeed everywhere he goes.”
“He got people to understand it was not about individual pressing,” adds Ankersen. “You need to do this together, otherwise it doesn’t work. These were basic things but in the heat of the moment, you sometimes forget them. But he kept drilling us and his methods made sense so quickly.
“He’s a top coach. I really think he can show that in the Premier League, which is the holy grail for coaches.”
(Top photo: Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images)