Ralph Hasenhüttl saw two summer signings help dig him out of big trouble against Leeds United - but the problems at Southampton remained apparent.
Reported player unrest against manager Hasenhüttl has focused on discontent from the end of last season, when Southampton’s season fell apart, as they lost 10 of the last 13.
At 2-0 down here in their first home game of this campaign, Joe Aribo, who joined from Rangers, came off the bench and showed nimble footwork before striking in Southampton’s first. Sekou Mara, recruited from Bordeaux, was also brought on at 2-0 down and spun delightfully before threading through a cutting pass for Kyle Walker-Peters to arrow in the equaliser.
Nigeria midfielder Aribo spoke after the game and, in an awkward position discussing the reported player unrest, he gave apparently neutral answers. There were four times when the situation was raised with him in questioning.
The first two times he was questioned about the reported unrest but said he had “not heard too much about it” - then he was asked twice about Hasenhüttl.
Asked if everyone is behind Hasenhüttl, Aribo replied: “Everyone is ready to fight and push together. You saw it out there in the second half. We just wanted to fight and work together to fight for the team.”
He was then asked if the second half proved the team is behind the manager, he said: “It is really important to have that. You need fight. When you are down 2-0 it is hard to get back in the game but the boys are fighting and pushing together. You can literally see how important it is to get back into games to win games.”
Southampton had been reeling when Leeds, tipped to be in a relegation battle this season, went into a 2-0 lead from Rodrigo’s close-range finishes.
At that stage it looked like the battle of former RB Leipzig head coaches – Hasenhüttl and Leeds manager Jesse Marsch – was being won by the American, but the Austrian’s fresh faces changed the momentum.
The pair knew each other from their managerial stints with the Red Bull stable, when Marsch was at New York and Hasenhüttl at Leipzig.
Marsch was asked a question that began “you probably realise by now that the press can be pretty tough on managers if things go wrong…” which he interrupted by sarcastically saying “really?”
It was then put to him that Hasenhüttl had taken a lot of criticism in the lead-up to this game and he was asked his views.
“We all share in misery,” Marsch said. “It’s a miserable job. But we all love it at the same time. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t.
“It’s an honour to be a manager in this league. It’s the best league in the world. It’s built with criticism and doubts - but that means it’s important.”
Report: Southampton fightback gives Hasenhuttl breathing space
Ralph Hasenhüttl shook his fists on the pitch after his Southampton side fought back here and eased some of the early-season pressure on him.
Soon afterwards in the press room, having watched his men fight back to draw from 2-0 down, he could make a jibe at the newspapers for ruining their headlines and argued that his team had given an answer to their critics, using an expletive to describe what he thought of the negative stories surrounding his management of Southampton.
Hasenhüttl said: “I’m sorry that we destroyed a few headlines. They were written. The team gave the answer.”
On his team’s fightback, he said: “They were flying in the end and trying to win this game.”
Regarding losing the dressing room, he also made clear what he thought about how serious it is “to spread something like that” and added: “Everybody can say something. It’s up to you if you make it big. It doesn’t make our job easier. Our job is always tough.”
Results are making his job more difficult – Southampton had lost five in a row before this game, so another defeat would have been a bad blow, as observers watched for sign of losing the dressing room.
The south-east club have won just once in 16 in all competitions, after the late-season slump in the last campaign, so pressure is still there – and agitation among the St Mary’s crowd was apparent before the late fightback.
The fighting talk that he gave reflected a different mood shown by him compared to earlier when he looked frustrated at times.
It had been looking particularly grim for the home side’s head coach when Rodrigo’s close-range double strike, early in the second half, had put Leeds United into a 2-0 lead.
One of Hasenhüttl’s subs Joe Aribo – the Nigeria midfielder signed in the summer from Rangers – brought them back into the game though, and Kyle Walker-Peters then snatched a draw with his 81st-minute equaliser.
Hasenhüttl was backed by Southampton – owned by Serbian billionaire Dragan Solak – with recruits in the transfer market over the summer, including Romeo Lavia and Gavin Bazunu, young players from Manchester City, who both played here.
And, overall, this was an unconvincing display, as Leeds were left to rue tossing away their earlier good work.
Leeds manager Marsch, though, said: “When you remove the emotion, because it's high, you see clearly we're making progress as a team.”
Marsch’s men lost their way late on though, in this battle of two former RB Leipzig head coaches – having initially responded well to losing captain Patrick Bamford to injury in the 28th minute. Bamford’s muscle tightness means his injury problems continued after the troubles of last season but Marsch said the problem is “not bad” and his withdrawal was to manage him properly.
Rodrigo appeared to be operating further forward early in the second period and he scored two close-range goals, turning in the opener before heading in a second. Those goals followed his opening-day strike in the 2-1 win against Wolves.
The first half had also seen some encouraging signs for Leeds. In 30C-plus heat, the visitors showed intent early on with their pressing in attack, and Bamford had a close-range shot blocked.
The Yorkshire club had to survive a scare when Diego Llorente brought down Stuart Armstrong on the charge, leading to a Var review for a possible red card – but the Spanish defender got the ball and escaped punishment.
Southampton needed to up their game and better chances began to fall for Hasenhüttl’s men, including Armstrong bundling the ball narrowly wide.
Rasmus Kristensen should have put Leeds 1-0 up before the break though, as the Yorkshire club threatened, when he miscued a header – a sitter – and the ball was gathered by goalkeeper Bazunu.
Rodrigo snatched the lead for Leeds within the opening minute of the second half, as he met Jack Harrison’s cross. Marsch’s men were looking impressive at that stage and Rodrigo’s second goal arrived when he headed in from Pascal Struijk’s flick-on.
Southampton were back in the game though when Aribo made his quick impact, finishing beyond desperate defenders on the line. The home side looked a different beast and a leveller looked distinctly possible – and it came when Walker-Peters finished from a tight angle, from another sub Sekou Mara’s delivery, to complete the pressure-relieving fightback.
Perhaps this just papers over the cracks though. Hasenhüttl will have to hope Southampton’s ownership show patience with him.