After a tough start to the season, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s appointment as Head Coach of Southampton has lifted the spirits around St. Mary’s. The new man in charge is set to give new direction to a club that was losing its way, writes Ryan Hunn.
It must be good to be a Southampton fan. This week brought some overdue good news to those who have witnessed their club go from being dynamic and forward thinking, to one that was anything but. Little has been widely made of Southampton’s struggles and the changes that have occurred during the last few years. The structures that took the club into the upper echelons of the Premier League were removed, brick by brick, like a game of Jenga and the club was wobbling perilously. However, with news that Ralph Hasenhüttl will be the new head coach – and rumours of a return for former head of recruitment, Paul Mitchell - it seems that Saints might have their mojo back.
The timing could hardly be better. Southampton are in the relegation zone following a rapid decline over the last season and a half. Last season they escaped relegation with a game to spare, the first bottom half finish in the top flight since the season they returned. Without such an appointment, it would be hard to make a case against them being major candidates for relegation. And what’s all the more encouraging is that it echoes the very appointment that led to them taking the Premier League by storm..
Shortly after Southampton made their return in 2012, they set an example to clubs looking to catapult their way up the league. Sacking Nigel Adkins after back-to-back promotions seemed harsh at the time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and replacing Adkins with Mauricio Pochettino in January 2013 displayed the clarity and forward thinking Southampton were to become known for. After finishing the season in 14th, Pochettino then led Saints to 8th place the following season, before leaving for Spurs.
Replacing Pochettino wasn’t an issue for Southampton. In his first season in charge, Ronald Koeman led Saints to 7th, their highest finish in the Premier League era, before breaking that record again the following year to finish 6th. Quite incredible progress considering the club sanctioned the sales of five first team players before Koeman’s first domestic season had even begun. During the summer of 2014, club captain Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert all left the club.
If the departures of Koeman and Pochettino weren’t the reason for Southampton’s decline, the uncertainty behind the scenes most definitely was. The first sign of danger came in early 2014, when Nicola Cortese left following a dispute with then majority owner, Katharina Liebherr, over frustration at the unwillingness for further progress. Cortese had been Executive Chairman at the club since facilitating the takeover by Liebherr’s father, Markus, in 2009 and was the man behind the plan that took Southampton out of administration and from League One to sixth in the Premier League in five years. He also brought in another major piece of the puzzle that Southampton have long since missed: Paul Mitchell.
After a seven year stint at MK Dons as a player and recruiter, Mitchell joined Southampton as Head of Recruitment aged just 30. He went on to revolutionise Southampton’s model and added to its already fine academy an incredibly successful policy of recruiting players cheap, and developing to sell for profit. When Mitchell followed Pochettino to Spurs it left a void at the club and that has yet to be filled. As the next wave a players left for pastures new (Sadio Mane, Virgil Van Dijk et al), Southampton no longer had the personnel, or the process, to replace them.
The rumours of Mitchell’s return are made all the more exciting of it teaming with Hasenhüttl’s dynamism. The Austrian has excelled everywhere he’s been, having worked his way from Germany’s third tier up to the Champions League. He narrowly missed out on promotion with SpVgg Unterhaching in his first season in senior coaching before taking Aalen into 2. Bundesliga. After moving to Ingolstadt, Hasenhüttl took them into the Bundesliga for the first time in their short history, in just his second year in charge. He left for newly promoted RB Leipzig in 2016, leading them to Champions League qualification in his first season and the Europa League in his second.
After leaving Leipzig at the end of last season, a move to the Premier League seemed a natural next step for Hasenhüttl, with rumours earlier this year tipping him as a possible successor to Arsène Wenger. But, Southampton it is and it’s a fit that almost seems too perfect, as demonstrated by the excitement felt by Saints fans when the appointment was announced. Hassenhüttl’s sides are relentless in their pressing and attacking intensity, and have always been good to watch. The one possible down side would be that history suggests the Austrian won’t stick around longer than a few seasons. However, neither did Pochettino nor Koeman and if his appointment kick starts another Southampton revival, then it wouldn’t be a negative after all.