When Southampton’s players run out at Arsenal on Sunday, they will do so with the benefit of having some Tenerife winter sun on their backs.
But, their Canary Islands mini-break was no holiday. Manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, being used to the mid-season breaks taken in German football, drilled them to within an inch of their lives, as is the habit of contemporaries like Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.
And the Austrian also spent time meeting each player individually, running them through bespoke video footage of their performances so far this season. Collectively, they have not been good enough and entered the weekend in 18th, a relegation position.
The ‘new manager bounce’ that followed Hasenhuttl’s arrival in place of Mark Hughes, who departed to little sorrow from Saints fans, has now faded. Saints’ last three games, with relegation rivals Crystal Palace, Burnley and Cardiff, were all six-pointers, but just two were collected, pulling them back into the same position Hughes left them in.
Hasenhuttl has the look of a manager who could do a good job at St Mary’s, but he may have been given too much to do. As convenient as it might be to blame him, neither was Hughes responsible for the continuing malaise. He, like Hasenhuttl, inherited a diminished asset, stripped of its jewels and replaced with cheaper, lower quality raw materials.
Southampton’s treading of water on the South Coast is the result of too many years of resources being stripped, assets being cashed out such that the club, once seen as one of English football’s most progressive, is in danger of following the likes of Aston Villa and Sunderland down the plughole into the chaos of the Championship.
Should Saints drop down then they need only look to the problems that Stoke and Swansea are having in the Championship, with West Brom of last season’s demoted clubs in the hunt for promotion, but themselves suffering wild oscillations of form.
Would Southampton be equipped for an instant return? The evidence of this season is in the negative, there’s no longer a tranche of players who could be cashed in to pay their way back up.
There is no Virgil van Dijk, no Adam Lallana, no Dejan Lovren, no Sadio Mane to fund the arrival of hardened EFL veterans. Those players are competing for the Premier League title now with Liverpool, while Luke Shaw is finally finding his way at Manchester United and Victor Wanyama is back playing for Tottenham alongside Toby Alderweireld.
Southampton’s problem is not so much that those players left, rather that they were not adequately replaced. That lot brought in £300m between them, but Southampton do not look like a team worth even a quarter of that price.
And much the same has gone for managers. Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival in the January of 2013 was controversial at the time, as he had replaced Nigel Adkins, who had ended eight years of exile from the Premier League, but it changed the club completely.
Nicola Cortese was the visionary who brought Pochettino to England, but departed the club 12 months after his best signing was made. He was the employee of the Liebherr family who presided over the club’s revival, but sold out the majority of their shares to Chinese businessman Gao Jisheng in the summer of 2017. Their withdrawal of interest and that change of ownership is an underlying issue at a club where ambitions have retracted.
Pochettino’s replacement when he left for Spurs, Ronald Koeman, was similarly poached by another club in Everton in the summer of 2016. For four years or so, Southampton served as a finishing school for clubs of deeper pockets and broader horizons.
The well, though, has run dry. Koeman’s replacement, Claude Puel, had similar problems at St Mary’s as he is doing currently at Leicester. Southampton finished eighth at the end of the 2016-17 season and had lost in the final of the EFL Cup, a status now way beyond their wildest dreams but the Frenchman was unpopular with fans. Southampton finished only two places lower than the previous year under Koeman, but gathered 17 points fewer.
One of the issues of following Southampton is its distance from just about everywhere else aside from Portsmouth and Bournemouth, and aside from a hardy, loyal bunch of the club’s loud and boisterous away fans, many supporters do not see their team beyond St Mary’s.
The Saints are not one of those teams on permanent TV rotation. Therefore, home form is hugely important if a manager is to win over the paying public. Puel’s team failed to score in their last five home games in a season they scored just 41 goals in 38 matches.
‘Whispering Claude’ also has a perception problem. A manager who actually spends much of games screaming instructions becomes a sibilant, hushed presence as soon as a mic is laid in front of him. Southampton never got to see the expansive football with which he once won Ligue 1 with Monaco and delighted at both Lille and Nice.
Sacking Puel seemed a reasonable decision, if a tad hasty, and with Van Dijk’s head turned towards Liverpool where he would eventually head in January, this was where the problems set in. Mauricio Pellegrino was not a patch on Pochettino, his near-namesake, compatriot and predecessor. And the home form descended yet further, as Saints won just one of their last 17 league matches before Hughes was parachuted down in March of the 2017-18 season.
Giving Hughes a three-year contract was another mistake, though one quickly rectified, and he was sacked after executive director Les Reed and technical director Martin Hunter had been removed from the back office, a sign that the club’s problems went way beyond the manager’s inadequacies.
Hasenhuttl has inherited a team short of star quality; these are solid citizens rather than potential stars, and some of them are on the downward rather than upward trajectory. Last summer saw the surprising departure of Dusan Tadic to Ajax, one of the last of the players who had made Southampton a progressive, easy on the eye, team.
These days, Nathan Redmond, a player whose form is not always wholly reliable, has a great deal of onus resting on him, while Hasenhuttl is yet to find a proper goalscorer.
Charlie Austin and Danny Ings have not scored in 2019 while Shane Long, more famous these days for not scoring, was the striker fielded at Cardiff a fortnight ago, an afternoon where Southampton equalised in injury time, only to concede the winner two minutes later
Hasenhuttl, whose rage that day boiled over, does appear to have a fire in the belly that none of Puel, Pellegrino or Hughes showed nearly enough, and his forensic work in Tenerife suggests a work ethic that may yet pull Southampton out of the mire.
Whether he can last the course at a club where short-termism has chipped away at what was previously a paragon club is the leading question. Should he fail, then there are no guarantees Southampton, having frittered away so much talent and made so many managerial missteps, will be back any time soon.