When Southampton were smacked 9-0 by Leicester City in October 2019, Ryan Bertrand summed things up brutally.
“It felt like relegation,” were the four words that come from his mouth, and after that, it probably should have been.
The Saints were a sinking ship, one led by a manager in Ralph Hasenhuttl who had no right to keep his job.
His P45 was all but on his desk and the writing was on the wall. To put things simply, the Austrian was a dead man walking.
No manager survives a drubbing like that, especially in front of their own fans at St Mary’s. It was a defeat that put Southampton in the relegation zone. They sat 18th after ten games with a goal difference of -16.
It was still early in the season, but the signs were there. Gao Jisheng needed to act quickly and find a new manager. That would have been the simple remedy anyway.
Jamie Carragher branded the Saints players a disgrace, claiming it was a result that would reverberate around the Premier League. Meanwhile, one exasperated fan sadly noted that “football is cruel” after sitting in four hours of traffic to take his son to his very first Southampton game.
This wasn’t just a match that impacted Hasenhuttl, it was one that deeply depressed its loyal fanbase.
Hasenhuttl said after the game: “I’ve never seen a team act like this, there was no fight for anything. It was horrible to watch.”
For a man usually so radiant in his press conferences, this spoke volumes. He was crushed, dejected, and on the verge of being sacked.
Therefore, the way he has galvanised his players since then is remarkable. They have shown impeccable fight and desire while playing a brand of football that unnerves the opposition.
In doing so, Southampton are now top of the Premier League – before Saturday and Sunday’s action – and have embarked on the type of turnaround that defies belief.
After eight games, they have 16 points, double the number they had after that 9-0 defeat last season.
That loss is now in the past and following their 2-0 victory over Newcastle on Friday evening, are ensuring those painful memories of 13 months ago are forgotten about.
But how and why has it happened? Well, a huge amount of gratitude needs to be shown to Gao, Southampton’s chairman.
The club may well be up for sale, but without his decision making in October 2019, it’s unlikely the Saints would be where they are today.
After the biggest loss in the club’s history, firing Hasenhuttl would probably have been in his thoughts. Instead, he stuck with the Austrian as Southampton finished the 2019/20 season in 11th.
It was an incredible fate for the Saints and as a result, the manager was given a new contract this summer as a reward for his hard work.
The challenge now will be keeping hold of him. Taking a club like Southampton to the summit of the top-flight is something that will have the top-brass of the Premier League taking note.
After all, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position at Manchester United is under fire and it’s not far-fetched to suggest that Hasenhuttl would be a candidate to take over.
A move to one of Europe’s elite is probably too soon for Hasenhuttl but his brand of football is one that has great similarities to the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool.
He plays a pressing style of play and in 2020/21, only Leeds and Brighton have performed more successful pressures than Southampton. In terms of mid-third pressing, the south coast side leads the way on 530 attempts.
Former Chairman Ralph Krueger remarked when Hasenhuttl first joined: “Ralph’s enthusiasm for football was contagious. In our discussions, he very quickly aligned himself with the values and the vision of the club.”
That has never been more clear than now. The 53-year-old understands Southampton and has given them a clear identity and way of playing. It’s no surprise that with that structure they’re now doing so well.
Gao took a huge gamble in keeping Hasenhuttl at St Mary’s, but it’s paid off spectacularly.
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