Opposition Closeup – Southampton, Tactics, and Hasenhüttl

With Liverpool’s first piece of silverware secured in the new season, following a penalty shoot-out in Istanbul, the club has its sights set on the South Coast and Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton outfit.

One UEFA Super Cup in the bag, five trophies for Jürgen Klopp’s men to play for. Though fans will have experienced far better football from this Liverpool side, this second trophy win of the Klopp era is telling of the continued determination to stay at the top. Champions of Europe, indeed.

WHERE ARE SOUTHAMPTON NOW?

Returning to their domestic duties on Saturday, a number of Liverpool’s squad will come across the once familiar territory of St. Mary’s Stadium. Though, much has changed since Virgil Van Dijk – the Merseyside club’s most recent acquisition from The Saints – switched shirts in a, then, record-breaking £75 million deal.

After only eight months in charge, manager Mark Hughes was sacked following Southampton’s dismal first half of the season, with former RB Leipzig man, Hasenhüttl taking charge with the club floundering in the relegation zone.

Ralph Hasenhüttl, press conference
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 08: Ralph Hasenhuttl during a Southampton FC Press conference pictured at Staplewood Complex on August 08, 2019 in Southampton, England. (Photo by James Bridle – Southampton FC/Southampton FC via Getty Images)

Implementing a new training regimen and adapting the club’s tactics, the Austrian quickly encouraged a turnaround in results securing 15 points in 10 games, almost double Hughes’ 2018/19 record of 9 points in 15 matches. A humble points total certainly, but remarkable nonetheless for a side that had undergone a mid-season managerial switch, not to mention an upheaval in training intensity and tactical style.

Sound familiar?

Playing a style of football that Klopp described as “very lively, aggressive football, with pressing”, quite the opposite of Hughes’ patient, possession-based football, it is unsurprising that Hasenhüttl, dubbed ‘the Alpine Klopp’ has earned comparisons with the German.

Indeed, perhaps few people will be aware that the two were quite familiar with each other even before Hasenhüttl’s arrival in the Premier League.

“[Klopp and I] did our coaching badges together and we know each other very well,” he said. “I think we appreciate a similar philosophy on football – we want to play a high tempo game, we want our guys to sprint around, press well and these are elements which make the game livelier and varied and get people excited.”

– Ralph Hasenhüttl

Following the 3-0 loss at Burnley’s Turf Moor ground – a game in which the Clarets had rarely threatened, until the last third – Hasenhüttl will be sitting on a modest win rate of 34.78% (league games only) come Saturday. Given Hasenhüttl’s reputation, however, and none too shabby attacking options, one can reasonably expect the Austrian’s percentages to drastically improve over the course of the season.

Southampton currently lie in 17th with 0 points and a goal difference of -3.

RALPH HASSENHÜTTL – ‘THE ALPINE KLOPP’

Though the former Leipzig coach does not encourage the comparisons made between him and Klopp, he has accepted a similarity of philosophies. Leipzig’s fast, aggressive pressing after Hassenhüttl took charge is certainly testament to that.

But how did the Austrian end up at Southampton?

Following the end of a modest career, after two seasons spent with Bayern Munich’s reserves, Hassenhüttl devoted himself immediately to coaching, later taking charge of German fledgelings SpVgg Unterhaching and VfR Aalen on his way to a successful stint in charge of Ingolstadt, a club he took to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history.

Despite ensuring the Bavarian club’s survival the following season, Hassenhüttl chose to join newly promoted Leipzig the following season in favour of extending his contract. In his debut season with the club, the Austrian guided Leipzig to an expectation defying second-place finish.

Alleged tensions between Hassenhüttl and former manager Ralf Rangnick came to a head in the following season, with contract talks failing in lieu of Julian Nagelsmann’s impending arrival at the club.

SOUTHAMPTON TACTICS

Hassenhüttl’s footballing philosophy has remained roughly consistent since his time at Ingolstadt 04 – with minor tweaks taking into account the varying quality of squads at his disposal over the years – favouring a strong, quick press, which capitalises on the opposition’s transitions.

At Leipzig, Hassenhüttl favoured a 4-2-2-2 with a double pivot of two screening midfielders ahead of the defence (including current Liverpool player, Naby Keïta), the two remaining, traditionally wide, midfielders played narrowly ahead close to the two forwards. This had the effect of reducing space between the six forward players, allowing them to press as a pack, with Leipzig’s players forcing the opposition to play the ball centrally – for example, by closing off passing lanes to the opposition fullbacks – where Leipzig’s hexagonal six could swarm the ball in the hope of encouraging a turnover of play.

This counter-press often began with Leipzig launching high-risk long balls into the advanced areas of the pitch looking to create attacking chances. If such a chance failed to arise, Leipzig’s midfielders were drilled to attempt to win the ball back as quickly as possible in order to mount a second attack whilst disorganisation was rife in opposition ranks, as a result of the first long ball.

This style of play does – as Klopp has likewise experienced with his gegenpressing at Liverpool – come with its drawbacks. With the wide midfielders playing narrowly ahead of the double pivot, Leipzig’s hexagonal six has a great deal more ground to cover than a flat midfield four would. Such a physically intense playing style was difficult to maintain over the course of the season and, following Champions League qualification and the onset of more games, Hassenhüttl was forced to reduce the intensity of the press and make some alterations.

For instance, in his second and last season the Austrian made a subtle change to how Leipzig would involve opposition fullbacks in the press, choosing to force the ball into wide areas, with the two forwards staying central. This would encourage distribution to the fullbacks, triggering Leipzig’s press, whereby the pressing player would attempt to force the opposition into a turnover via a risky pass.

At Southampton, Hassenhüttl has altered his formation, favouring a 3-4-2-1 ahead of the tried-and-trusted 4-2-2-2, with the goal of encouraging defensive solidity in a side that had conceded 29 goals in 15 league games prior to his appointment in the 2018/19 season.

Ultimately, this tweak has arisen from personnel issues, with a number of players struggling to adapt not only to the physicality of the Premier League but also to the Austrian’s high-intensity style. Though, this has allowed Hassenhüttl to draw from the youth, a quality for which he was praised for during his time coaching in Germany.

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Farrell Keeling

From Brighton, living in Liverpool. Avid writer and Liverpool fan. Doing bits for FOAR.

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