How a 'doomed' Southampton side can show Sheffield United the path towards Premier League survival
Ryan Bertrand thought it meant they were destined for relegation. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s position, according to those who claim to know the game inside out, was definitely untenable.
But 14 months after being beaten 9-0 at home by Leicester City - a result Bertrand later admitted saw them hit “rock bottom” - Southampton have climbed to fifth in the Premier League table and are still, after holding their nerve and ignoring the self-appointed experts, under the Austrian’s command.
The story of how Hasenhuttl and his squad hauled themselves off the canvas and recovered from what was a potentially debilitating result should be of interest to everyone at Sheffield United as they prepare for Sunday’s visit to St Mary’s. Although Chris Wilder’s side have proved far more competitive than their latest opponents were during that encounter with City at the beginning of last term - all but two of the defeats they have suffered this season have been by the odd goal - losing 10 times in 11 outings means they make the journey low on points, even lower on confidence and at the bottom of the division.
So how did Hasenhuttl inspire the turnaround which has left Southampton eyeing a place in Europe? And what clues does it offer United in their own search for redemption?
Bertrand, whose sending-off against Brendan Rodgers’ men marked the start of the capitulation, believes honesty, togetherness and clear and consistent messages emanating from the boot room are responsible for his club’s remarkable recovery.
“It allowed us to hit rock bottom, strip everything back and focus on what needed to be done,” the defender admitted when he reflected upon that set-back during a recent interview. “As a club, we all got together and chose which path we wanted to go on - and that was all together, fighting for this club, a place that we love and where we love playing.”
Although Hasenhuttl refused to pull any punches during the immediate aftermath - declaring the performance against City as unacceptable - behind the scenes sources reveal he adopted a more measured and conciliatory approach. It is similar to the one Wilder is following now, refusing to make light of the situation United find themselves in - or the failings he believes are responsible for it - but then reminding supporters how much his players care.
One of the options Hasenhuttl took, however, is not available to Wilder. After a brief period of self-reflection with his staff, Hasenhuttl immediately unveiled a change of formation - ditching the 3-4-3 he had employed against City and reverting to the 4-2-2-2 which had brought him success at his former club RB Leipzig. With United’s development as a top-flight club still at an early stage - they were only promoted in April last year - Wilder does not enjoy the same flexibility as his opposite number; hence his refusal, given that a switch would probably involve dropping some of his most experienced operators, to unveil a different strategy. Injuries have further limited Wilder’s room for manoeuvre, with Jack O’Connell set for a lengthy absence following knee surgery and Ethan Ampadu and Enda Stevens also undergoing treatment for hip and leg complaints respectively. John Fleck is also being nursed back to full sharpness following a back issue.
“We’ll hear lots of stuff about how it’s the system,” he said following United’s own defeat by City last weekend. “But that doesn’t explain the individual mistakes which gift-wrapped them a goal in the final minute.”
One route which does remain open to Wilder, though, is a change of emphasis on how United press opponents. James Ward-Prowse, the Southampton midfielder, has explained how Hasenhuttl ordered his players to go “back to basics” during the meetings which followed their reverse to City. The ‘press’ they employed had to become higher, he insisted, and more systematic with people hunting in packs rather than individually. Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill are also believed to have been studying how to improve this part of United’s game in recent weeks. The pressure they placed on opponents en route to a ninth paced finish last term was, to the naked eye at least, much more concerted than they have applied since returning to action in September. Reverting to type would see United receive possession in more advanced areas which could, in turn, bring the best out of forwards such as Rhian Brewster. Analysis of the 11 goals he scored during a loan spell at Swansea City, before completing a £23.5m move from Liverpool, reveals he thrives on quick crosses and through balls delivered at pace.
“We had to not only get the right shape but also the right behaviour in that shape,” Hasenhuttl said.
Southampton did not recover immediately, losing to Manchester City twice and also Everton. A draw with Arsenal stopped the rot before wins over Norwich City and Watford marked the start of the healing process, as Hasenhuttl’s team began working more collaboratively - beating five of the next six sides they faced after defeats by Newcastle and West Ham.
Deeper into the schedule and six points adrift of safety - Southampton were in the drop zone on goal difference alone - United require a quicker fix. But Wilder insisted at his media conference yesterday they remain convinced survival is an option.
“We were at our lowest ebb,” Bertrand said. “But, looking back, in a sense that was a motivation.”