As Ralph Hasenhüttl assumed his position in the Southampton technical area on Sunday for what would prove to be the last time, the hood of his club-branded puffer jacket sheltered him from the rain but was powerless to preserve his position. He survived two 9-0 defeats in his almost four-year long tenure, plugged on despite the austerity of the previous Chinese ownership and the sales of his best players, as well as retaining the club’s Premier League status while developing young talents on the job. This time, though, he admitted to no longer having the answers. Could he see a way out? “Er, no,” he said with the demeanour of a man who knew his fate.
There have been highs – Hasenhüttl was reduced to tears after beating Liverpool last year and his team outplayed Chelsea en route to victory as recently as August – but a nagging chain of lows meant there was an air of inevitability about the Austrian’s sacking. He deserved a more dignified send-off and, originally, the club had hoped to review his position during the World Cup break, only for a run of one win in nine matches to hasten the desire for change.
Hasenhüttl was the fourth-longest serving manager in the division and last year became Southampton’s longest-serving manager since Chris Nicholl in 1991, no mean feats by modern standards. At the same time his longevity is partly behind his downfall. After a while human nature kicks in and supporters pine for a shiny new thing, hence the obsession with transfers. The incoming head coach, expected to be Nathan Jones, will soon discover the severity of the task at St Mary’s and the restraints that Hasenhüttl had long confounded.
If talks progress as expected, Southampton are hopeful Jones, who has worked wonders at Luton, could be in charge for Saturday’s trip to Liverpool, the Saints’ last game before the World Cup break.
Hasenhüttl’s decision to hand Theo Walcott, a striker who had not scored for 18 months, his first start of the season against Newcastle on Sunday felt pointed. Southampton signed 10 players in the summer, six of whom are 20 or younger, but only one of whom could be classed as a forward. Southampton attracted a wave of exciting talent – Roméo Lavia has shown he can run games at 18 and Armel Bella-Kotchap, 20, was rewarded for his early-season form with a Germany debut at Wembley in September – but the final piece of the puzzle eluded them and Hasenhüttl. As a result, there has been an eerie reliance on the much-improved pair of Che Adams and Adam Armstrong.
In the end even Hasenhüttl seemed to have grown weary of another relegation battle. That feeling was not exclusive to him either, with that view shared in the stands and on the pitch, with some players tired and sceptical of his methods. The manager was regarded as an aloof character and his personality made it difficult for sections of the squad, particularly senior players, to warm to him. Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek were experienced defenders allowed to move on loan in the summer, while Nathan Redmond and Yan Valery, both of whom had been at the club for at least six years, departed permanently. The midfielder Oriol Romeu exited for Girona after seven years.
Shocking Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea was an anomaly in a dismal run of four wins from 26 league games since March. Victory at Bournemouth last month and then a hard-fought draw against Arsenal four days later kept Hasenhüttl in a job but by that point he was in effect rendered to the role of an escape artist.
The owners, Sport Republic, led by the Serbian media magnate Dragan Solak, revamped things in the summer, sacking three long-serving members of the coaching staff and giving the squad a welcome facelift. They altered the team’s profile – the age of Southampton’s average starting lineup is the youngest in the division – but a teething period was a given. Some players have seized their chances, others are yet to shine. Others may not blossom.
For so long all roads at Staplewood, Southampton’s impressive training ground, led back to Hasenhüttl, with the 55-year-old using the pandemic-enforced lockdown to build a digital playbook, to inform playing styles and coaching methods from the top down. “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 you want to go,” he said at the time. Only now Southampton are seeking a new voice.