The next five games could well determine Ralph Hasenhuttl's future at St Mary's
The feeling of overwhelming uncertainty is not one which is unfamiliar to Southampton supporters. Since Ralph Hasenhuttl took charge of the club in late-2018, there have been more downs than ups, but it has - for large parts - felt like progression has been steadily made under the Austrian’s regime.
15th, 11th and 16th-place finishes have been the respective returns from the Saints’ previous three campaigns in the Premier League, with the obligatory gut-wrenching flirtation with relegation thrown in for good measure, to varying degrees.
Last season was particularly poor. A really strong start by the south coast club culminated in them topping the table last November - albeit for one night - and prompted an ill-advised PR team to release a collection of ‘Stop The Count’ t-shirts for supporters to claim on general sale. It didn't take a rocket scientist to work out that that was always, always going to leave the club with egg splattered all over its face when the predicted capitulation came to fruition.
And that it did, as following the table-topping win over Newcastle last November, Southampton have only managed to win seven (that’s 7) of their last 37 games in the Premier League - three of which came against last season's relegated duo Sheffield United (twice) and Fulham. A toothless return from a side who now find themselves in (yet another) perilous position, languishing just a solitary point above the relegation zone after seven games of the 2021-22 season.
Hasenhuttl fifth-favourite in PL Sack Race
Saints are yet to win a league game this term, and despite promising draws against the two Manchester clubs, it is becoming glaringly obvious that Hasenhuttl’s position in the St Mary’s hotseat could well be under threat. The former RB Leipzig manager is now 10/1 in the Premier League Sack Race market, fifth-favourite behind Steve Bruce, Nuno Espirito Santo, Daniel Farke and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Although a couple of bookmakers have him priced at just 11/2.
Considering Tottenham have a release clause which allows them to part company with Santo in the summer, should the club fail to achieve a top-six finish this season, it is hugely unlikely that the famously-fruigal Daniel Levy would rid the Portuguese from the club at a cost before the campaign’s end.
There is no doubting that pressure is mounting on Solskjaer at United - who is odds-on to leave Man Utd this season - but with a severe lack of world-class coaches available right now, effectively replacing the Norwegian would be nigh on impossible. Plus, United have the luxury of top-quality talent to bail them out of trouble and, while their approaching schedule is a daunting one, just one or two wins will keep the Scandinavian’s head above water.
Daniel Farke has won two Championship titles with Norwich, and realistically has enough credit in the bank with the majority of Canaries supporters to remain in charge deep into the new year at least, despite the East Anglian club’s catastrophic struggles in the country’s top division. Mike Ashley is too tight to hand Steve Bruce a payout at Newcastle - nothing more to be said about that one.
So that leaves Ralph. Trustworthy uncle Ralph - a man who has brought a huge degree of stability to a club which beforehand was left to rot at the hands of managerial mercenaries, whose methods were either painstakingly outdated or just extremely under par. The 54-year-old has brought an identity back to Southampton, implemented a high-pressing style of play and has, at times, made the club difficult to beat.
The issue is, those times have been few and far between during his tenure and this year the good times have come around more and more sparingly. Of course, a club of Southampton’s size and stature cannot expect to enjoy constant success in a division as competitive as the Premier League.
Despite the overachieving campaigns of 2013-14 (8th); 2014-15 (7th); 2015-16 (6th) and 2016-17 (8th & a cup final, albeit in absolutely no style), Saints have - and always will - be facing an uphill battle each season, just like practically every other club who stand outside of the traditional ‘Big Six’ will over the duration of time, thanks to the gargantuan financial disparity between teams at the top of the pyramid. There will be spells where the club exceeds expectations and they are truly great times, but don’t expect them to last for too long.
Ings-less Saints are without a win all season
This calendar year, Southampton have only won five league matches. Put simply, that is just not good enough. The loss of Danny Ings in the summer was a huge blow, and while the transfer made total sense from a financial standpoint with the England international out of contract next summer, replacing someone of his quality was always going to be incredibly difficult.
Hasenhuttl cannot be blamed for Ings’ departure, nor has he been by supporters of the club, and drafting in last season’s second-top scorer in the Championship, Adam Armstrong, from Blackburn was viewed as a good bit of business from the club in the summer. So far, though, Armstrong has struggled to adapt to the rigours of top-flight football and has scored just one goal for his new employers.
The 24-year-old was never expected to be an instant phenomenon in Hampshire, but the early signs are that a partnership with Che Adams - who is yet to open his account for the season - is going to take substantially longer than a couple of months to properly flourish, that is if it even can at all at this level. Pair the two together in the Championship and the goals they’d score would be almost offensive to the rest of the division, but we all know how big the gap is in quality compared to the Premier League and so far they just don’t seem to be clicking.
So that leaves a team who are devoid of goals (Saints have netted just once in their last four league outings) with two out-of-form strikers who too often seem too one-dimensional, without any kind of back-up plan - another thing Hasenhuttl has been critiqued about throughout his tenure at the club. The simple fact of the matter is - if you don’t score goals, you won’t survive in any league, let alone in the top-flight, and Saints can't seem to buy one from open play at the moment.
Signs of defensive improvement
Defensively Southampton look as though they have improved from last season, where they ended the campaign with the second-worst defensive record ahead of only the relegated West Brom, with 68 goals shipped in 38 games. This time out Hasenhuttl’s side have let in 10 goals in seven games and six teams have conceded more than them.
They kept a clean sheet away at Manchester City for the first time since 2003 and just a week before the trip north also kept a previously-free-scoring West Ham out at St Mary’s. Saturday’s 3-1 defeat against Chelsea flattered the hosts, who scored two late goals against 10 men to clinch the spoils, and had James Ward-Prowse not been sent off in the 77th minute, many feel as though they would have left west London with a point to show for their efforts.
There are, then, some positives to take, and still a long way to go until the end of the campaign.
But with five season-defining games approaching against Leeds, Burnley, Watford, Aston Villa and Norwich, the pendulum of fortune could easily swing both ways, and currently it seems as if it will be sent hurling away from the club’s preferred direction.
Anything less than nine points taken from the 15 on offer from now until November 20th will be deemed unacceptable and could well cost Hasenhuttl his job. Eddie Howe is the man whose name frequently crops up in conversation when supporters discuss the Austrian’s potential replacement, though there is a strong argument to be had as to whether or not the former Bournemouth manager would be a beneficial upgrade or just something different.
Make or break
In summary, Southampton are relatively close to being a very good side, one capable of challenging for a top-half finish.
They completed good business during the transfer window, notably bringing in the exciting right-back Tino Livramento from Chelsea - who already looks a fine player at this level despite his tender age - alongside left-back Romain Perraud and Chelsea loanee Armando Broja, both of whom have shown flashes of promise when utilised throughout the season’s first quarter.
The jury remains out on Armstrong and whether he will be able to cut it consistently at this level but time needs to be afforded to the 24-year-old before judgement can be fully made on his credentials; there is plenty to suggest that he will indeed find his feet in the Premier League. The trouble is, time is something Southampton do not have on their side, and the goals need to start reappearing soon or they will find themselves in another thankless relegation battle before the Christmas turkey is even put on order.
The next five weeks could well define Saints’ season, they certainly look as though they will for the man at the helm. Can we please just stop the count?