They may have been £5 million richer but losing Ronald Koeman left the Saints in a lurch as they watched one of the best managers in their modern history sign for Everton. But it was supposed to be fine because of Southampton’s history of finding shrewd managerial gems from around the world.
Southampton have never really been a club that’s the final goal for any footballer. If anything, as their transfers to Liverpool, so aptly prove, players and even managers have almost always viewed them as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Yet, as their recent history proves, it hasn’t stopped the Saints from trying to achieve or even become that bigger and better thing. It’s why they took a risk and appointed Claude Puel but the Frenchman barely lasted a year before he was sacked.
It wasn’t entirely his fault, because he did after all finish 8th in a tough Premier League season and produced a majestic run into the EFL cup final. But what Puel failed to really do was excite, bring about joy and play skin-raising football, exactly like both Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino did. It was for that reason that the Frenchman was sacked and the same reason why the Saints signed Mauricio Pellegrino.
But even he failed to make the cut and was sacked. However, with the club languishing around the relegation zone – with one win in their last seventeen league games – Southampton couldn’t throw caution to the wind and they signed Mark Hughes. He was, by all means, the safe option and the former Stoke City boss did his job perfectly. The Saints survived and duly rewarded Mark Hughes with a three year deal for his part in helping him do that.
He was sacked less than six months later and suddenly a once shrewd club was in disarray because their history of finding managerial gems had gone down the drain. Suddenly, the focus was on the board with their poor transfer strategy affecting their managerial choices with a lot of pressure placed on their next choice. But before they did that, Southampton underwent a spring-clean behind the scenes.
Then-vice chairman Les Reed was sacked alongside technical director Martin Hunter. They were joined by Ralph Krueger, the former chairman, and Ross Wilson, director of football operations (DOF), and replaced by Martyn Glover, head of recruitment, and Matt Crocker (DOF). Martin Semmens, the chief executive, was also brought in as the Saint ruffled a few trees and transformed their back-room staff.
It meant that mistakes like Guido Carillo, Mohammed Elyounoussi, Sofiane Boufal, Jordy Clasie and many others would be reduced. But more importantly, Southampton finally found their man as former RB Leipzig boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, aka the Alpine Klopp, walked in. The Austrian had a tough start to his time at St Mary’s but still managed to etch out a few incredible results. That includes a 3-2 win over Arsenal, a 2-1 win over Tottenham, Leicester City and Everton along the way.
Bright sparks along the way do not make a football club but Southampton’s willingness to stick with the man even after “that loss” has paid incredible dividends now. Somehow, Hasenhuttl, with a net spend of under 26 million, has taken a bang-average mid-table team and turned them into something capable of a lot better. Nothing proves that more than their two-day spell at the top of the table for the first time in 32-years.
For a Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and even Arsenal fans? That puts a smile on their face for a few hours. But for a Southampton fan? That transforms their entire outlook on life, it may have even made many fan’s years in what was a hellish 2020. The mere fact that a club from the South Coast and a team with the 14th most valuable squad in England behind West Ham and Newcastle United had somehow managed to make it to the top is incredible.
The fact that they look capable of challenging and maybe even achieving more? Is insane. Especially when you take into consideration “that loss” and the state that Southampton were in just about a year and two months ago. Then reiterated their faith in Hasenhuttl again this June with a brand new four-year deal and if he finishes out the current season, as he should, then Hasenhuttl will become Southampton’s longest-serving manager since the start of the Premier League.
But more importantly, the Saints have completely imbued themselves with their manager with everyone from the first team to the youth academy following his method. Because while most of us spent our lockdown learning how to cook and binge-watching everything in sight, Ralph Hasenhuttl, according to the Athletic, created the SFC Playbook. Players from the youth academy and onwards will look to play the Hasenhuttl way – high, aggressive pressing with a willingness to learn and improvise when needed.
"But what have the Saints really done?"
Also, Southampton’s 9-man bench today had 8 players who have come through/played for the #SaintsFC academy:— Joe Prince-Wright (@JPW_NBCSports) January 5, 2021
It’s simple because they’ve done what Manchester United have done with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, what Arsenal have done with Mikel Arteta and what Manchester City have done with Pep Guardiola. They’ve done what Chelsea should be doing with Frank Lampard and that’s putting their faith in the process and trusting that they’ve got the right man. Effectively, the Saints have handed the reins to Ralph Hasenhuttl and asked him to lead the team forward, which the Austrian is not just doing but proving that money doesn’t do everything.
That has seen the Ralph Hasenhuttl way become the Southampton way. From future signings to next-gen Southampton players, everyone will not just learn the Ralph Hasenhuttl method of football but, in the words of Carl Anka, they will be "schooled using a new coaching regime the manager created himself". For those unsure of what this is called; it's been referred to as a long-term vision in the past with the Saints now a team to be jealous of.
Because the Austrian has showcased that elite coaching can do so much more than just relying on a chequebook to create teams and fund transfers. He has showcased that Southampton have finally found their groove again because Hasenhuttl, whether they like it or not, is bound for something so much bigger than this. And yet, if his show of emotion after that incredible win over Liverpool proves one thing; it’s that Ralph Hasenhuttl is here to stay.
It proves that he isn’t just another elite coach that can turn good players into great ones, he’s somebody that wants to truly build an empire at Southampton and is someone who is doing a pretty damn good job of helping the Saints become the bigger and better thing. And if that isn’t lovely to watch, then nothing ever will be.