Will Southampton stick it out with Ralph Hasenhuttl or are they finally drifting apart?

Wall art near the Southampton FC stadium reading 'When the Saints go marching in' Credit: Alamy
Wall art near the Southampton FC stadium reading 'When the Saints go marching in' Credit: Alamy

Southampton are just above the bottom three, but they’re boring rather than bad and perhaps that’s why they keep faith with Ralph Hasenhuttl.

 

The Premier League is looking extremely tight this year so reading too much into the order might be something of a fool’s errand, but it’s difficult to look at the position of Southampton, one place above the bottom three, and not wonder whether the four-year reign of Ralph Hasenhuttl may soon be coming to an end.

But this is Southampton and Hasenhuttl. His team may be in a pretty dismal run of form, but the club has stuck with him over almost four years which have only seen the Saints once finish above 15th place in the Premier League. The owners have shown him considerable patience over that time – as seen when he survived in his position on both occasions that his team lost a Premier League match 9-0 – but for how much longer can that reasonably be expected to continue?

Southampton’s 2022/23 season under Hasenhuttl has been as pallid as those which preceded it. They’ve won just three of their 13 Premier League matches and sit in 17th place in the table, separated from the relegation places by just one point. But even though they’ve won just once in the eight games they’ve played since the end of August, results haven’t always looked disastrous.

Two of their wins, for example, came against Chelsea and from a derby(ish – Southampton’s biggest rivals will always be Portsmouth, regardless of which division the two teams are playing in) at Bournemouth. And while they shipped four goals against both Spurs and Manchester City, otherwise they haven’t lost a league game this season by more than a single goal.

With a third of the season played, they have an identical record to Aston Villa – including goals scored and conceded. The two are separated in the Premier League by their head-to-head record only, with Villa higher because they won the match between them 1-0 at Villa Park in September. Aston Villa have, of course, already offloaded Steven Gerrard.

There are glass half-empty and glass half-full ways of looking at their current position. When looking at the league table – and this is true for every club below about sixth or seventh, such has been the even-handedness of the Premier League this season – the optimistic among their supporters could point to the possibility that three or four wins would likely lift them into the top half. If not getting relegated is all they’re concerned with, there is currently little reason for Southampton to panic.

But it should be about more than just this attritional battle to avoid relegation every season, shouldn’t it? Because when the manager is ‘not quite bad enough to get rid of’ teams can start to stagnate on the pitch, and while stagnation and player sales may keep the balance sheets in relative order, it doesn’t create much excitement for supporters who’ve seen their team finish 17th, 16th, 11th, 15th and 15th over the last five seasons.

Their last match at Crystal Palace was a case in point. It’s not that Southampton were especially bad at Selhurst Park. Palace were the better team throughout the first half and led by the interval but Southampton came back reasonably strongly in the second half, hit the post themselves, and forced Palace goalkeeper Vicente Guaita into a couple of decent saves.

But they didn’t come back strongly enough, and it was the fourth time in their previous five away league games that they’d failed to score. Travelling Southampton supporters have to go back to their game at Leicester on August 20 for one of those. Several other clubs have scored the same number as the 11 they’ve scored in their 13 games, but only Wolves and Nottingham Forest have scored fewer goals than Southampton.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Could it really simply be the case that Southampton might just need a goalscorer? There was a point during the Palace game when Che Adams broke through but only shot more or less straight at Guaita. A couple of their other chances would have benefited from better finishing. And it shows in the statistics. Their top scorer is Adams with three. Then comes Joe Aribo with two. Then there are six who’ve scored one each.

There’s nothing wrong with a team having players all over the pitch who can score goals, but these aren’t the sort of numbers you’d normally have in mind. To take an extreme example as a counterpoint, Manchester City have players all over the pitch who can score. It’s also about coaching. You have the players you have once the transfer window closes (out-of-contract players are still available, though Wolves’ recent experience with Diego Costa thus far doesn’t inspire much confidence in following that path), so the responsibility for Southampton’s toothlessness in front of goal can only ultimately rest with the head coach.

He’s not in charge of recruitment. The man they took on to fill that position in July, Joe Shields, has already been poached by Chelsea, who, lest we forget, also want Brighton’s head of recruitment Paul Winstanley. In Shields’ four months with the club his most notable achievement was to spend £49.6m on young players from Manchester City, including already first-choice goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu.

Above the space where Shields used to be is CEO Martin Semmens, who has been open about the policy of erring towards younger players in the transfer market. It was this that brought Shields to St Mary’s in the first place, thanks to his previous involvement in the youth set-up at Manchester City. But if Semmens is ultimately the person responsible for the players that Southampton buy and sell, at what point do fans start considering his suitability for the position?

They only have to look 60-odd miles up the coast to see a club that have proved, for all the swooping of apex predators, it is entirely possible to have a clear, coherent and sustainable philosophy that results in improving players, better results on the pitch and some of England’s most progressive football.

It’s easy to see why especially Southampton supporters would be frustrated. Because in terms of players coming through and results on the pitch, Brighton are close to where they were not so long ago. It may seem like a lifetime ago, but it’s only been six-and-a-half years since Southampton finished in sixth place in the Premier League, in the middle of a four-year run during which they didn’t finish below eighth.

Perhaps it’s the inertia of the last three or four years that’s keeping Hasenhuttl in situ at St Mary’s. He’s not catastrophically bad – except for when Southampton lose 9-0, but that hasn’t happened for almost two years now – and he seems on board with the club’s policies on transfers. He does just enough, and that seems to be just fine for those running the club.

But as per the gap between Aston Villa and Southampton in the Premier League, the margins in the professional game can be very thin. Like several other Premier League clubs who’ve led this sort of life in recent years, Southampton have benefited from how poor the teams have been at the bottom of the table. Will there be a Burnley, Norwich and Watford again this season? There seems little evidence that there are many teams set to lose touch with the rest just yet.

So the margins are narrow and the losses could be substantial. Four years in a managerial job when there’s been little beyond lower mid-table football and a couple of cup semi-finals is beyond unusual for modern football. Any parting of ways would not be a knee-jerk decision.

Could Poch be tempted back? It seems unlikely, but the World Cup offers not only a substantial break in the calendar but also the strong likelihood of other potential replacements for Hasenhuttl becoming available, and with Southampton’s next two games being against Newcastle and Liverpool, a combination of poor results and the hiatus might well make end of term the point at which he can cling on no longer.

And that’s fine. After four years and no improvement in the fortunes of the team, Southampton have given it plenty of time and Southampton supporters have shown a lot of patience. But it feels as though this club has been sailing round in circles for a long time, and there comes a point at which you have to break that cycle.

Because the risk is always that if you’re doing just enough, it doesn’t take much for you to be doing nowhere near enough, and that can be hard to recover from, even when the margins are small.

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