Ralph Hasenhuttl clenched his fists at full-time. Southampton had just beaten an improved Tottenham side under Jose Mourinho and the Saints boss knew just how big a win this was, not just in isolation but in comparison to where they were before the start of December.
After losing 2-1 at home to Everton, Southampton were a mess. It was their sixth defeat in seven Premier League matches and left them with just eight points from 12 matches – the same tally as at the same stage last term under former boss Mark Hughes. Questions were then raised over Hasenhuttl’s desire to carry on.
“I have to,” he said. “It is my job to be strong in that moment. It is why I am here. I will try to invest everything and try to work hard and get better. I think we can play better.”
Despite describing Southampton’s form as “not good enough”, Hasenhuttl believed he could turn this side around but the real challenge was proving it to everyone. A 2-2 draw at Arsenal, who scored an equalizer in the 96th minute, was a performance brimming with energy after Hasenhuttl called on his team to become “nasty” again. It showed positive signs but there was still a long road ahead.
Southampton then followed it up with a gritty, comeback win against Watford and then another crucial victory against fellow strugglers Norwich. It felt like a corner had been turned but defeats at Newcastle and at home to West Ham seemed to bring Hasenhuttl back to square one. Yet the signs were still there that performances were improving, particularly against Newcastle, where they created plenty but were profligate in front of goal.
More promising displays continued, this time with results to match. Southampton secured impressive away wins at Aston Villa and Chelsea. The latter was a superb performance that featured dangerous attacking play and an organised defence. It could have easily been more than 2-0. “In the first two or three months we played like a relegation team and now we are playing like a Premier League team,” said Hasenhuttl after the win at Stamford Bridge.
A draw at home to Crystal Palace followed, a match in which Southampton had the better of, before the victory over Mourinho’s Spurs on New Year’s Day. Hasenhuttl’s side now sit 12th in the table, five points outside the relegation zone and the same number of points off the top six. Suddenly, a season that looked bleak after record 9-0 home defeat to Leicester has now changed into one with a potential finish in the top half.
So how have Southampton turned things around?
First, they have found a reliable goalscorer. Danny Ings, signed on a permanent deal for £20 million in the summer, is having the season of his life. He has 13 league goals this season, joint-second behind Jamie Vardy (17).
Ings is providing quality in front of goal that the Saints have lacked for a number of years – no Southampton player had scored more Premier League goals before Christmas in a season than the 11 Ings has netted this term (level with James Beattie in 2002-03). In addition, Ings has scored 52% of his team’s goals this season, more than any other side in the top tier.
Another key feature in Southampton’s turnaround in form has been the intensity. Hassenhutl emphasised the need for an increase in sprints and pressing and the stats show Southampton are becoming a harder team to play against. No team has made more tackles than their 413 this season, while they also rank in the top ten when it comes to total interceptions (225).
“This is the big difference to the beginning of the season or to our very difficult October where we lost without passion and without front foot defending,” said Hassenhutl after the win over Tottenham. “We lost our way a little bit, but what has happened since then has been amazing for me because of the reaction of all the staff and players to show up and show that we can do much better. At the moment we are playing like a very good team, and it’s enjoyable to watch them playing.”
Formation change has also been important. During Southampton’s barren start to the season, Hassenhutl adopted a 3-5-2 system, which resulted in slower attacking play and confusion over players’ positions. However, a switch to a more conventional 4-4-2 has coincided with an improved run in form.
The change has allowed the likes of Nathan Redmond, Michael Obafemi and Shane Long to offer more width and penetration in attack, as well as provide more service for star man Ings. As a result, Southampton are having more touches of the ball in the opposition box and creating more chances.
The likes of James-Ward Prowse and Emile Hjoberg are thriving in centre-midfield in the new system, while Oriol Romeu is providing an excellent shield in front of the back four – of midfielders to have played at least ten league games, only Wilfried Ndidi (4.4) is averaging more tackles per game than the Spaniard (3.4).
All have contributed to Southampton’s impressive and much-needed return to form. It has been refreshing as much as it was unexpected but the challenge for Hassenhutl and his players is to now stay consistent. Should the Saints do so, a top-half finish awaits them. And given where they were after 12 league games, that would be some achievement.