Taking Southampton to the top of the Premier League table for the first time illustrated the impressive job that Ralph Hasenhuttl is doing on the south coast. But it was what the Saints boss did the very next day that underlines the extent of his influence there.
After seeing his side beat Newcastle 2-0 on the Friday evening, he was in attendance to see the Southampton B team put five goals past Manchester City. He promptly gathered the young group into a circle and congratulated them not just on the win but the manner of it.
Hasenhuttl is helping to reconstruct a football club.
“It is the first time in my managerial career that I have looked to the bigger picture,” he tells Sky Sports. “In Germany, I was only the trainer, only focused on this momentary success. I did not see this bigger picture. But the older you get, the more experience you get, the more responsible you get, the more you become a manager with the bigger picture in mind.”
This helps to explain why the 53-year-old Austrian has developed the Southampton playbook, a digitised guide outlining his vision so that every coach in the academy can help to implement his style of play. This is a club-wide philosophy designed to ensure that the next generation of players for Hasenhuttl’s pressing machine are already being developed.
It is a holistic approach that includes young academy coach Carl Martin joining his staff, working with the senior players. “We want to develop him and then send him back to the youth teams so that he can develop the youth teams,” Hasenhuttl explains.
“All the coaches in the academy, they get the playbook, they get the teaching. Everything should be a maximum of three or four mouse-clicks before you see what you want to see.
“I was pushing this because I have seen how important it is to have the same vocabulary, the same principles, the same work in training and on the pitch, because only then do you have the guarantee that you are going to go in the direction that you want to go.”
Southampton’s academy has long been praised, with the recent return of Theo Walcott only highlighting that tradition of developing high-quality players. But Hasenhuttl identified a problem. While many of these youngsters were able to build play with the ball, they were not so adept when it came to the intense demands of his game without the ball.
“They are very focused on the development of their possession game within the academy,” Hasenhuttl observes. “But football is not only played with the ball. Now we are adding a new element for these players and this is what happens when you do not have the ball.”
Dave Horseman, the B team coach, has described the playbook as an amazing document, completely changing his view of how to approach the game. Hasenhuttl himself acknowledges that he has adapted his vision, now believing that his former club RB Leipzig put too much emphasis on this out-of-possession work. He thinks he has found the balance.
“That was the mistake at Leipzig but if we concentrate on every part of the game then we have a bigger chance to make a more complete player,” he says. “This way fits perfectly together and creates a player who can more easily adapt to what is needed in the first team.
“To have that connection with the philosophy that the first team has is going to help them massively. This is the goal for the future and I hope it helps us to be a more successful club.”
It is fascinating to hear a Premier League coach taking such a long-term view but Hasenhuttl, speaking ahead of the game against Manchester United on Sunday, is in no doubt that if a club such as Southampton is to prosper then there is no choice but to search for an edge.
“If you want to compete as a smaller club against bigger clubs and still have a chance then you have to do something different,” he explains. “Otherwise, in terms of individual quality they will always have more than you have. You have to find a different way.”
His record demands respect. There were promotions with Aalen and Ingolstadt in Germany, briefly transforming the latter into a force in the Bundesliga. A subsequent second-place finish with newly-promoted Leipzig further enhanced his reputation as a special coach.
Humility, however, is a feature. “If I had known at the start of my managerial career how little I knew, I would not have been so convinced about what I was doing,” he laughs.
Hasenhuttl, who signed a new four-year contract in June, has needed his humour because it has taken time. The story of that 9-0 defeat to Leicester is oft-told and the truth is a little more nuanced – there was good work before that day and there have been defeats since.
But the progress that is being made is clear. Since the turn of the year, only Liverpool and Manchester City have won more Premier League matches than Southampton.
Perhaps the improvement should not be a surprise because Hasenhuttl’s pressing game requires time to perfect. Upon reverting to the 4-2-2-2 shape that worked for him at Leipzig, everything began to click. Oriol Romeu, the midfielder who has returned to the fold to play such a pivotal role, recently spoke of knowing his pressing triggers in his sleep.
“In the first year, it was interesting,” Hasenhuttl explains. “If you did not demand it every week, if you let things go, within a week or two it was gone. The behaviour changed so you had to show them again and again and again because it was not natural for them.
“That first step was the hardest. It took time for them to have the automatisms that you need to play this game. Now everybody wants to do it much more than they did in the beginning when we had not been so successful. We have been going so long with this shape now that we know nearly every weakness. We know there are solutions for everything.
“Now it is natural for them and they do not do it differently. Even if you woke them up at 3am in the morning after they had not trained for three weeks they would know exactly what they have to do. It does not come from nowhere, there is a lot of work to this.”
That is evident just watching Southampton and the statistics back that up. Only Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds side – widely regarded as unique – allow their opponents fewer passes before making a defensive action. When it comes to allowing opponents to progress the ball up the pitch, there is a significant gulf between Southampton and just about every other side.
It requires astonishing energy levels and relentless running. Only Leeds and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have made more high-intensity sprints than Southampton this season. How would Hasenhuttl, the player, a burly striker in his day, have coped with Hasenhuttl, the manager?
“For me, it would have been a disaster, I think,” he admits. “It is a lot of running and I did not like to run. I could never offer the game that I want to see as a manager.”
The difficulty of this adaptation impacts Southampton’s recruitment.
“Players who can help us immediately will be too expensive for us so we do not buy players who can help us immediately. We need players who have the potential to help and develop them. The good thing is that we have shown that we can develop nearly every player.
“If a player wants to go with us then he will become a better player and he can help us sooner or later. It sometimes takes a little bit longer. But in the end it does not matter how long he takes, it only matters that he does it. Che Adams is a good example. He took more than one year to be the player who helps us but now he is that player.”
This is the whole point of the project. Danny Ings is the team’s undoubted star player but even his latest injury has not brought an end to Southampton’s unbeaten run. Hasenhuttl’s vision is that there should always be another player waiting and ready to step up.
Ready to play the Southampton way.
“This is why they should not need to go on loan here or there, they should stay with us because they will learn more about our first team with our second team than anywhere else. That will give us opportunities for the future to bring them into the first team.”
Not that it will ever be easy.
“If you want to play then you have to be better than them,” he adds. “If you are not running enough, if you are not winning enough balls, then you have no chance.”
The visit of Manchester United, with all their resources, is a reminder that Southampton are attempting to defy the economics as well as the odds. But expect this team to compete.
“This is the goal, this is the challenge we are facing,” says Hasenhuttl. “Without a lot of money, we are trying to create a very successful club. It is a massive project for the club but I think it is a project that is healthy for the club and will bring a lot of benefits in the future.”