Hasenhuttl’s Return to 4-4-2 has Saved Southampton’s Season

One team’s form that has slightly gone under the radar is Southampton. Ever since their 9-0 defeat to Leicester, there were massive question marks on whether manager Ralph Hasenhuttl would last the week. It was the biggest defeat a team had suffered since Manchester United’s 9-0 win over Ipswich back in 1995. This defeat was more significant, considering the finances in the league, you rarely see such high scores anymore. The red card does have a massive effect on any team, but not the extent of conceding nine goals.

Many folks, like me, on twitter, began to wonder if Hasenhuttl was as good as we all thought. Southampton are, at best, functional, which is a shame considering just how fun his Leipzig side was in their debut Bundesliga season. The 3-5-2 formation just looked so stale. I assumed it was only used last season to improve the team defensively, but instead, they persisted with it. Having the extra body in defence did help a pretty weak side stay up, but it took away any attacking threat, especially when Valery and Bertrand weren’t offering enough width. Southampton were already lacking numbers in attack, and taking away more players in the front line made them a lot less exciting.
To save his job, Hasenhuttl had to do something. After defeats to Leicester and Everton and a Carabao Cup exit to Manchester City, Hassenhuttl scraped the back three and moved to a 4-4-2, a formation he consistently used when in the Leipzig dugout.

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If we’re looking at the Premier League from the 23rd November, the first time Hasenhuttl used the 4-4-2, in a 2-2 draw against Arsenal, then Southampton would be 4th in the table. Their impressive turn-around has coincided with victories over Chelsea and Tottenham, keeping clean sheets against both London clubs. While their attacking numbers have improved slightly, taking 13.8 shots per game instead of their usual 12.3, it’s in defence where the team has become a lot more interesting. Southampton have faced 199 shots this season, with 60% of those coming during the period where three at the back was favoured. They’ve stopped opponents from dominating games, which can be best shown through their pressing. Southampton’s pressing has intensified throughout the winter period, and the statistics show this. Southampton are allowing 7.55 passes per defensive action, the joint least in the league. It’s also a massive improvement compared to the 9.24 passes they were allowing per defensive action at the beginning of the season.

This change meant some significant tweaks to personnel. Due to Vestergaard’s lack of pace, there wasn’t a chance he could play in this more attacking system. Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek, two young and athletic defenders have formed a good partnership. Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares, while not near the level they were four years ago, are still solid enough at the back. But most importantly, they’ve enabled the wingers in front of them to focus primarily on ball progression.

The midfield is where the most significant improvements can be seen. In the last nine games where Southampton have played a 4-4-2, James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg have played every minute. Other than his set-pieces, Ward-Prowse has failed to impress me. He’s never been a consistent creator from open-play and seemed to only play for his magic from a dead ball situation. Højbjerg has always been an exciting player. A great distributor who wasn’t afraid to put in a tough challenge, Højbjerg finally found his place in the team, after struggling under Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes.

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The 4-4-2 has allowed Southampton to play with genuine wingers again. Nathan Redmond has remained an ever-present either on the right or as a second striker, while Moussa Djenepo or Stuart Armstrong fill in on the opposite side. Redmond has been the most improved player under Hassenhuttl. He has always been a great dribbler, but his end product is still quite not there. Last season, Redmond went from 0 goal contributions under Hughes to 10 under his current coach. He has only contributed to 3 goals so far this season, but his performances have improved.

Danny Ings has easily been Southampton’s best player this season. He has been the only player in this team who has consistently put his chances away. Many of Ings’ goals have come from inside the penalty area, and has never been better than during these nine games. Ings has scored 8 goals, the most in the league. While Ings hasn’t quite found his striking partner, (Long has primarily played, but Obafemi and Redmond have played there too) there is no doubting his importance to this side.

So let’s look at their 1-0 over Tottenham, and see what they’re doing so well. Let’s start defensively. During Tottenham’s buildup, Southampton were consistently defending in a 3-4-3, with Djenepo joining the front two and Bertrand taking the Belgian’s place. It allowed them to simultaneously cut off the passing options to Ndombele (later Lo Celso) and Sissoko. It forced the full-backs to either drop insanely deep to give their teammates an option, or move further forward and hope Alderweireld or Vertonghen could find them with a long ball. The forward three wouldn’t press the centre-backs during these situations, because their goal is for Spurs to lose possession through a misplaced pass. The long pass became a regular method for the Belgian defenders, but a failed one. Out of the combined 35 long balls attempted by Vertonghan and Alderweireld, only 6 were completed. Southampton forced two players, considered to be very comfortable on the ball, to resort to hopeful balls into the path of Harry Kane.

On the occasions where Spurs would either find their full-backs in space, or Sissoko would drop deep and attempt to dribble through the midfield, the players would quickly shift to a 4-4-2. This would give less space, especially in the wide areas, for spurs to transition play and create chances. Aurier and Sessegnon would be crowded by their opposing full-back, winger and midfield. The sheer amount of ground covered by Højbjerg and Ward-Prowse was impressive. The pair were always there to support their teammates in keeping the Tottenham wide players isolated, forcing them to play it back to their own half, or put in a poor cross for Bednarek and Stephens to efficiently deal with.

Both full-backs were playing different yet effective roles. Bertrand would regularly push up and support Djenepo either through a diagonal run inside, or giving him a short pass option behind him. Cedric, on the other hand, would have more of a reserved role, slotting into the backline, making the back three. This was common throughout the game:

 

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Cedric (number two) stays behind the halfway line, while Bertrand (number twenty-one) is alongside the forwards, and ahead of his winger. This was very effective in both attack and defence. It allowed Southampton to exploit the space left from Aurier’s forward runs and Alderweireld’s lack of pace while having the right numbers if Spurs managed to get out of their own half.

In attack, Southampton can be best described as direct. Some of their attacks that contained some excellent interplay between their forwards. But generally, the Saints were looking to get the ball in the opposition third as quickly as possible. Stephens and Bednarek would look to send balls straight into Ings and Redmond. While the probability of the pair beating Alderweireld and Vertonghen in the air is very low, they primarily did this to win the second ball. Over and over again, Ings would lose the aerial battle, but at least three players would be close to win the ball back. Southampton’s lack of creativity is something that hasn’t been addressed since the departure of Dusan Tadic. Avoiding the midfield and taking advance of the stamina and speed of the forward line is an effective method for the short term.

As seen from Bertrand average position, Southampton were frequently attacking down the left side. In fact, 44% of their attacks were coming down Djenepo and Bertrand’s side. As mentioned, this was down to Spurs’ weakness in that area, but to benefit the players on the pitch. With most of the attacks coming down the left, it allowed Armstrong to make runs into the box and cause plenty of problems for the Tottenham defenders. During the second minute of the game, Djenepo put in a pretty dangerous ball into the box, with Ings, Armstrong, Redmond and Ward-Prowse all available. While Djenepo did waste this chance, it was a sign of things to come, with Tottenham struggling with the number of players pushing forward.

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Ings was a vital cog in his team’s performance. The former Liverpool forward not only scored the winning goal but helped his teammates all over the pitch. Ings would drift to both flanks, aiding Djenepo and Armstrong, while also holding onto the ball well. Ings completed 4 dribbles in this game, failing to be dispossessed. Not only was his attacking play good, but defensively he did a lot to help his teammates. He was pressing well, tracking back when Spurs broke quickly and worked his socks off. Ings was substituted at the 75th minute, likely because of the shift he put in.

The midfielders also deserve plenty of credit for their performances. James Ward-Prowse fits seamlessly in a double-pivot, while Højbjerg continues to show why he is undroppable. The Danish international completed the most passes for his side, while also attempting 12 long balls to help push his team further up the pitch. Ward-Prowse played a more attacking role, joining the forwards in attack, at the same time always tracking back to help his midfield partner. The England international completed 9 tackles in this game, more than anyone else on the pitch.

At the start of the season, I put Southampton down as my team to watch. I like a lot of their players and have backed Hasenhuttl since his arrival in the South Coast. The change of formation was needed and is clearly getting more out of the talent at the club. There are still issues regarding creativity that need to be addressed in the summer. But for now, this change in approach could be enough to not only keep Southampton in the division but challenge Wolves for that seventh spot.

Predictions for the Premier League – 19/20

Let’s finally discuss arguably the only league much care about, and for understandable reasons. While the Bundesliga is the league I cannot keep away from, England’s top division has the competitiveness and star quality that many more casual fans want to see. England’s top-flight currently possesses the best team in Europe and the best team the Premier League has ever seen. There is always plenty to talk about, so let’s get into who will succeed, and who will fail. 

Outside Shout – Southampton

Since I’m bored of talking about Leicester, let’s look at another team, one that might finally be on the up. Between 2013 and 2016, Southampton were one of the most likeable clubs in the league. They were getting quality from a host of domestic talent in Shaw, Lallana, Bertrand, Clyne, Rodriguez and Ward-Prowse. They combined this well by picking up players from more inferior leagues, like Tadic, Van Dijk and Sadio Mane. They were consistently finishing in the top half of the table and brought two talented coaches to the league, with Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino both moving on to better things. They weren’t following the trend of other mid-table teams, in making generally bad decisions in terms of appointing the old guard of managers. They were more forward-thinking than most clubs, which enabled them to stand out in a league where the quality of football below 7th was questionable at best.

There were apparent issues off the pitch, but the moment the club’s problems became apparent was during the 2016/17 season. In the previous season, Koeman managed to push his side to finish 6th, ensuring they had European football the following season. After the Dutchman departed to join Everton, Southampton replaced him with the experienced French coach Claude Puel. I saw this appointment as a smart one from Southampton. While he was never fantastic at either Nice or Lyon, he still did a very respectable job. During his time at Lyon, they reached the Champions League semi-finals, the first time in their history. The club attempted to give Puel the players to help him succeed in arguably their biggest season, with the signings of Nathan Redmond, Sofianne Boufal and Pierre-Emile Höjbjerg. Redmond showed at Norwich that he was good enough for the Premier League, while Boufal came off the back of a stand out season in Ligue 1, contributing to 15 goals for Lille. All were under the age of 23, which helped continue their habit of signing younger players and aiding in their development.

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The problem for Puel during his reign was the high bar which was set by the previous managers. An 8th place finish alongside a cup final is an acceptable finish for a side which lost their best attacker in Sadio Mane. Southampton were ineffective in the final third and Puel does deserve some criticism for that, but what did they expect? Puel had a reputation for being a defensive coach, and with his lack of attacking talent, it isn’t a surprise his team were quite dull to watch. He was let go at the end of the season, and replaced by Mauricio Pellegrino.

This is where things went from decent to very bad. The club failed to bring in any forwards during the 17/18 summer window and left Pellegrino with very little in attack. There was no rhythm or inventiveness in the final third, which made the Saints one of the most boring sides in recent memory. After being ambitious with their managerial choices, it wasn’t a surprise it finally came crashing down. Poor recruitment throughout the team resulted in a side where goals were a rarity, which resulted in Pellegrino’s sacking. Mark Hughes arrived to steady the ship, and while they were slightly improved, he did not deserve a three-year deal. The idiocy on giving him a long term contract came back to bite them, after Southampton only managed to win a single game in the 18/19 season, before his sacking after a 2-2 draw with Manchester United in December. 

After 2 years of ruining the good reputation they built for themselves, they finally made an appointment to match the ambition they once shown. Ralph Hassenhuttl arrived after departing RB Leipzig after a disappointing follow-up season to their second-place finish in 16/17 season, where they crashed out of a relatively easy champions league group. Hassenhuttl is an excellent coach, who built an aggressive, pressing side in Germany that enabled them to compete with the very best. For the first time since Koeman, it felt like Southampton were finally going somewhere.

While his half-season with Southampton wasn’t spectacular, Hassenhuttl did lead them to survival in a comfortable fashion. Redmond went from 0 goal contributions under Hughes to 10 under his new coach, a definite improvement for one of their most important players. There were slight improvements all over the field. A back 3 with an aggressive midfield partnership of Höjbjerg and Romeu and focus on the wing-backs pushing forward saw an increase in results and general entertainment. 

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Many do not predict Southampton to challenge the other top 6 chasers, but I do believe that once everything clicks, they could be one of the best sides outside of the top 6. They’ve started the season in mixed form, losing 2 of their opening 3 games. However, they have been so unfortunate not to have an unbeaten start. Liverpool were fortunate to win as well as Brighton. Djenepo is an excellent addition and could add that much-needed creativity and dribbling that the team is desperate for. Che Adams is a slight risk at £15 million but has the potential to contribute. This could be another disappointing season, but there is a possibility that everything goes right. 

Overachievers – Arsenal

Arsenal are really bad, and at this point, it is getting worrying. Emery’s debut season was dreadful. They had a chance to sneak into that top 4, but three consecutive defeats to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester ensured they would be forced to play Europa League football once again. It wasn’t just the league table where things were looking bad, but especially on the pitch. Arsenal went from a fun but extremely vulnerable side under Wenger to a dull yet weak team at the back. The overreliance on Aubameyang and Lacazette to convert every chance that came to them, which they basically did, is not a practical way to build an attack. Aubameyang ran hot throughout the season and carried Arsenal to at least challenging for top 4. 

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Arsenal did have a good summer, with record signing Pepe adding an elite player to the right-side. David Luiz and Kieran Tierney added better defensive personnel, and Ceballos finally filled that Santi Cazorla-shaped hole. However, if early season form is anything to go by, I do worry if Arsenal can actually become a champions league-level side. Their shot numbers are still deficient, and if their Gabon forward suddenly hits a dry patch, I have no idea how they will cope. It’s unlikely they will drop out of the top 6, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if Chelsea with a transfer ban or an extremely poor Manchester United finishes above them. 

Underachievers – Chelsea

Speaking of Chelsea, I genuinely have no idea what to expect from Lampard’s side. They have a very talented team and still waiting for Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi to return from long-term injuries. This transfer ban, while having apparent issues, does have its positives. Lampard has said multiple times that everyone was going to be given a chance, something we have seen already. Tammy Abraham has started 2 of the first 3 games of the season, showing how faith has finally been put in him. Mason Mount is another to start a majority of the season. Even though I’m not his biggest fan, there is a clearly a decent player in there. The midfield and central defensive options are still elite. Having Ngolo Kante in your team will always keep your midfield functional, and the added addition of Kovacic’s permanent signing is a massive boost in ensuring the middle of the park is secure. 

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My worry with Chelsea is the strain that European football and potential injuries could have on the side. Emerson is Chelsea’s only real left-back, and Azpilicueta isn’t the most forward-thinking. There is also a very likely chance the attack simply doesn’t click. Pulisic has never put in a lot of goals and assists, We still do not know if Tammy can play at the top level and I’m not sold on Mount. I hope their younger talents live up to the potential they have shown for years and guide Chelsea to a successful season. However, the chances of everything falling apart if these players do not flourish under Frank Lampard.

Best Transfer – Dani Ceballos

As mentioned, Ceballos is truly a great addition. While Ndombele, Wan-Bissaka, Rodri and Iwobi are fantastic signings, Ceballos’ added quality to a lacklustre Arsenal side was what they needed. The former Real Betis midfielder is a perfect allrounder, being able to play as both the teams’ creator, the anchor and the transitioner. It makes Ceballos so useful to have for a manager, being able to change his role based on the opposition or to accommodate specific players on his own team. This versatility in midfield is something Arsenal lack; a problem that intensified after the sale of Aaron Ramsey. Torreira can do a bit of everything, but you’d never play him as the most attacking in a two-man midfield, and Granit Xhaka is a player you have to facilitate due to his lack of speed and defensive awareness. Ceballos will give Arsenal an elite midfielder who could easily find a place in all the other top 6 sides. A masterstroke from the Gunners. 

Potential Flop – Jean-Philippe Gbamin

Everton have this habit of making good signings, then suddenly ruining all that in some foolish decisions. This time it was the sale of Idrissa Gueye. I’m fully aware there was no stopping him leaving. The defensive midfielder wanting to go in January but had to wait until the summer to earn his deserved move to PSG. He was Everton’s most valuable player and losing him would mean a lot of money would need to be spent on replacing him. Even from someone who has a love for midfielders in Gueye’s ilk, I had no idea who they could realistically sign. Sangare was linked, but he doesn’t possess the same speed as Gueye. Ander Herrera would have been a decent choice, but, like Gueye, his heart was set on joining PSG. This signing needed to be perfect if Everton want to meet their aspirations of reaching the top 6. 

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Their choice of Mainz midfielder Jean-Philippe Gbamin was a very odd one. While I haven’t seen much of Gbamin play, I expected his tackle and interception numbers to match that of the player he was replacing, yet they do not seem alike. In fact, it is a massive drop off compared to Gueye. The Ivory Coast midfielder only averaged 3.5 tackles and interceptions last season, an enormous difference to Gueye’s 6.8. Everton cannot afford Gbamin to fail. If he does, that could mean the end of Andre Gomes. As mentioned before, Gomes only had a successful season due to Gueye covering for him defensively, allowing the Portuguese midfielder focus on ball progression. Gomes now has to contribute more defensively, which he has never been able to do. Gbamin could fail to replicate Gueye, which would result in Everton having an unstable midfield.