It says much about the current cachet of Manchester United that few saw Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Southampton as a result that could save Mark Hughes. The departed manager had run out of time after eight months of excuses.
It couldn’t be the ref’s fault every time. Three wins in 22 league games, and only one home win damned him. At least Hughes can point to his still not ever having presided over a relegated team, despite departing both Stoke and QPR during seasons that ended with demotion. The promise of his early career with the Welsh national team and Blackburn now seem dim and distant memories.
As does the image that Southampton once commanded, that of being one of the best-run clubs in English football. Saints was a club of such stability that losing a manager need not trouble its Premier League status, as happened after Ronald Koeman stepped in after Mauricio Pochettino and improved the club’s performances. It also possessed a much-envied and pillaged youth and scouting system.
The appointments of Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino showed the club was built on sandier foundations than had been realised, though it hardly helped that the likes of Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Victor Wanyama, Toby Alderweireld, Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk were cashed out to top six clubs, bringing £300m into the coffers.
Southampton have become living proof that being able to call that type of funding to hand is little guarantee of future success. The well has run dry, such that the five forwards who have started Premier League matches this season have scored five goals in total, and Danny Ings, loaned from Liverpool, has four of them. Saints are 17th in terms of goals conceded, and 17th for goals scored, a crisis situation that needed an expedient solution.
The word from the club’s exec class, which had already been trimmed after last month’s sackings of sporting and scouting directors Les Reed and Martin Hunter, is that of a club looking for someone who shares the Chinese majority owners’ “long-term vision”, though four managers in 18 months hardly suggests long-term.
Austrian Ralph Hasenhuttl is a manager whose technocratic approach to the game would appear to fit such a philosophy. His reputation was burnished by two seasons at RB Leipzig, which both ended with qualification for European competition, the first seeing him take a newly promoted team straight into the Champions League.
He left the East German club in May due to a lack of a long-term contract, after a sixth-placed Bundesliga finish had been something of a disappointment. Three years at Southampton certainly offers him more security in terms of length of tenure, but he is arriving at a club in severe need of a rethink and where little in the way of time has been offered to his predecessors.
The circling of the drain that has been taking place over the last three seasons closely resembles that which happened at Sunderland and Swansea, the latter of whom also had a reputation for being a well-run club, where managers came and went before the magnetic pull of relegation dragged them down.
A new manager with a clear playing philosophy, a 4-2-2-2 formation that allows flexibility and encourages attacking football, would appear just the ticket for a club as bereft of direction as Saints has become. There was no visible style of football under Hughes while Pellegrino and Puel both favoured a timid, unpopular approach.
The problem for Hasenhuttl is that such footballing changes may take time to embed when Southampton’s situation is already parlous, and with the January transfer market a tough place to try and refresh a squad lacking in quality and incision.
He is known as the “Alpine Klopp”, but even the real Jurgen Klopp took a while to get Liverpool playing to his tune after arriving mid-season.
Signing up such a manager better fits someone brought in ahead of a pre-season, and with time to mould a squad. At Leipzig, Hasenhuttl was also used to working with sporting director Ralf Rangick, one of European football’s sharpest operators, while the departure of Reed has left Southampton with that position still vacant.
Then again, while it is currently in a state of severe flux, the club could not afford to soldier on any longer under Hughes. With seven league games to be played during December another change was more sensible than keeping him on. A club that has fallen off its bearings has taken a necessary gamble. But while still requiring long-term fixes, Southampton also badly need quick, short-term answers, with goals and home wins chief among them.