Southampton’s performance against West Ham served as a reality check for all involved. Off the back of two wins, for the first time since May 2017, Saints fans could have been forgiven for getting carried away - particularly when the much-maligned Shane Long and Charlie Austin combined for the winner against Arsenal.
Against Arsenal and Huddersfield Town, Saints played with a kind of intensity and energy not seen since the days of Ronald Koeman, and finally young players were getting a chance - crowned by Michael Obafemi’s record-breaking goal against Huddersfield. Meanwhile, in the least shocking revelation of the year, new recruit Jannik Vestergaard started to look assured when played in the formation he was bought to play in - before Mark Hughes borrowed the Tardis to send Saints back to a nineties’ 4-4-2.
Everything was coming together - this Christmas, Saints fans were giving their hearts to Hasenhüttl.
The honeymoon period threatened to come to an abrupt end on Thursday night. Despite taking the lead, Saints looked limp and fatigued against an increasingly impressive West Ham side. The tenacity and intent were there but the execution was poor. In Pierre Hojbjerg’s absence, Saints were sloppy in possession, as Mario Lemina failed to rise to the challenge of deputising for the Dane and left Declan Rice to run the midfield for the Hammers.
Meanwhile, Felipe Anderson came up with the kind of attacking quality Saints struggle to match on even their best days, and Yan Valery’s inexperience was left exposed. Anderson is the kind of finished article £40 million buys a club which is prepared to set its sights above the kind of affordable, rough diamonds which have been the recruitment priority for Saints in recent years. Without an experienced and effective coach to improve those recent purchases and bring them to the required standard, that money has often looked wasted.
However, while the performance reaffirms and reminds us of the challenge Hasenhüttl faces in the months ahead, it does not undermine his chosen methods for addressing that challenge. What Hasenhüttl requires at Southampton is the restoration of a footballing culture that many understood to be ‘the Southampton way’ - although it’s a concept fans could have been forgiven for forgetting.
While Hughes may sit in a dark room reassuring himself that this 3-4-3 was a masterpiece of his own making, Hasenhüttl’s plan is almost unrecognisable from the one Hughes devised in pre-season. And in order to transform the club’s culture, and hopefully its fortunes too, compromises and sacrifices will be made - the kind of fatigued performance witnessed against West Ham is unlikely to be the last we see, especially as Manchester City are next.
The aggressive, high-pressing football which has entertained us so much in recent weeks demands a significant amount from the players. After months of passive, deep defensive lines and ineffective solo pressing, Hasenhüttl will be a shock to the squad’s system. We’ve already heard from Nathan Redmond, so key in Saints’ recent upturn, that
And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess at the kind of fitness work required to execute these plans, particularly during a busy festive period, after months of Hughes’s somewhat more ‘relaxed’ attitude to training.
Danny Ings has looked dead on his feet after an hour in all of the recent games, as he presses and harries the opposition’s defence. The fact Redmond has not suffered a similar problem is a testament to his raw fitness and stamina. And while some may point to the large squad of senior players available to Hasenhüttl as a means of alleviating those demands, it has swiftly become clear that a large proportion of this squad is either unable or unwilling to adapt to the change.
As a result of these issues, this squad may look rather different in February, as fixtures ease to make this more than a case of mental and physical endurance, and Hasenhüttl is hopefully given the opportunity to bed in new players - albeit likely recruited along the same principles as before, or recalled from Championship loans. It is only then that fans will gain a greater understanding manager’s vision for the club.
Furthermore, it is widely accepted amongst the fan base that for too long this club has become dependent on ageing pros or obsessed with market money-spinning, instead of understanding and developing the potential under its own nose.
Hasenhüttl seems well aware of this recent deficiency in strategy. He has placed great faith in the likes of Jan Bednarek, Valery and Matt Targett. While Bednarek delivered another solid performance against West Ham, it was the two young fullbacks who seemed to particularly struggle, with many fans left craving the return of Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand, despite criticism of their form under Hughes. It was these performances which reminded us that infusing this squad with the youth that so many fans are rightly proud of won’t be without its problems.
In order to learn and improve, young players make mistakes. In order to keep up with the intensity, they may struggle with injury and fatigue - as may have been the case for Obafemi this week. Better fortune for Obafemi might have avoided the agony of watching Shane Long’s trampoline touches for the last half hour on Thursday night. Perhaps more than any other area, young players will demand patience and yes, sometimes, they may never make the grade.
In summary, despite Thursday’s disappointments, Saints fans and staff must stick with Hasenhüttl’s project, as habits are transformed; new or returning players likely arrive; and emerging youth adapts. It is not unreasonable to suggest that, despite Thursday’s disappointments, this project forms the club’s last shot at redemption, if it is to avoid the fate of a string of relegated clubs that threatened Europe but lost their way.