Southampton 19/20 Review: Hasenhuttl recovers to par
Alex Keble reviews Southampton's rollercoaster 2019/20 campaign, which began disastrously but has become a surprise success...
When Leicester City thrashed Southampton 9-0 in October, leaving them in the bottom three on eight points from ten games, it looked as though Ralph Hasenhuttl's days were numbered. He was a dead man walking.
And that's why Southampton's relatively average season is, in fact, a big success story. Hasenhuttl deserves enormous credit for reinstating a 4-2-2-2 formation and finding a way to lift the players after their humiliation against the Foxes, coming back from the brink with some absorbing and complex football.
Season so far
Saints were floundering in those early months, unable to create chances as Hasenhuttl began to deploy an awkward - and defensively leaky - 3-4-3 formation. They were resoundingly beaten by plenty of clubs prior to that 9-0, and even failed to win their next three league games after that infamous day.
And then, out of nowhere, Southampton won seven of their next 11 Premier League matches, starting with a 2-1 win against Watford in November 30 and culminating, fittingly, in revenge against Leicester in January.
Not much changed between these two distinct phases of the season, other than Danny Ings' brilliant upturn in form and improvements from James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond.
By the time the Premier League went on hiatus Southampton were safely in mid-table, playing Hasenhuttl's brand of compressed, counter-attacking football to a decent level.
Ings has scored 15 goals in 23 league starts this season, an outstanding return that has put him back in England contention and emphatically put years of injury problems behind him. Given the lack of creativity in the Southampton first 11, Ings's ruthless finishing has been essential in the club's revival.
There is no doubt the 2-1 win at Leicester is the season highlight, particularly after Dennis Praet actually gave the hosts the lead within the first 15 minutes. Goals from Stuart Armstrong and Ings flipped the game on its head and put to rest the ghosts of that diabolical day in October.
Elsewhere, a 2-0 home win against Aston Villa in February ended a worrying four-game run without victory, taking Saints to 34 points and ten points clear of the drop zone. It was at the final whistle that day when Southampton fans knew they would avoid a relegation battle.
Saints' worst result was possibly the 3-1 loss at home to Bournemouth near the beginning of the campaign, although in terms of a shock result the more recent 3-1 defeat at West Ham might have hurt more. David Moyes' side were in deep trouble when they played Hasenhuttl's side off the park shortly before the hiatus began.
Although the £20 million gamble on Ings paid off spectacularly, Southampton were considerably less fortunate with their other summer signings. Moussa Djenepo began brightly but the 21-year-old, signed for £10 million, has fallen away, while Che Adams was supposed to set the division alight after his arrival from Birmingham City. He is yet to score a goal in 22 appearances.
What they can achieve in 19/20
Southampton probably have the least to play for out of all the Premier League clubs. With nine matches to go Saints are safely midtable, seven points off the drop but five points - and four places - short of a top ten finish, priced at10.00 with Betfair Exchange.
Nevertheless Hasenhuttl will know the importance of a strong finish, should the campaign resume, to prevent another early collapse in 2020/21. Southampton have four of the six relegation candidates left to play, meaning they could yet top 46 points and make this their best year since 2015/16.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
Southampton desperately need to upgrade their goalkeeper, and that has to be the number one priority over the summer, along with getting a replacement for right-back Cedric Soares. Hasenhuttl should also be in the market for a playmaker with more guile.
However, even if they manage to improve in all the required areas it is hard to see how Southampton can jump to a higher level. Approaching the top ten is most likely their ceiling, at least until their recruitment team improves; they rarely buy lesser known players these days.
In spectacular fashion, Saints have achieved an unspectacular season. Hasenhuttl was heading for disaster as recently as October, before a flurry of wins lifted them back to par - a rollercoaster campaign that will draw to a close without much fanfare.
That's fine, for now, but having finished sixth in 2016 it won't be long before supporters are itching for more excitement.