When Ralph Hasenhuttl joined Southampton as their new manager on 5 December last year his first task was to fight fires.
Saints were 18th in the Premier League and floundering, having become a listless identikit team under his predecessor Mark Hughes. They needed to be motivated, coached and saved from relegation.
The Austrian achieved those short-term goals, winning 30 points from 23 league games to avoid the drop and finish in 16th place.
The idea was that this season, after reversing the damage of the Hughes era, Hasenhuttl could lay the groundwork for his own, much happier one. He was brought in with a reputation as an astute, ambitious and visionary manager – one who could improve players and implement his own tactical outlook.
Talk of a high-pressing, intense playing style excited fans and players alike. After six weeks of pre-season training, the intention was for Southampton to unveil their high-tempo revolution at the start of this season.
They would bring back the good times of the Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman days, upset some of the Big Six teams, and climb back to where they belonged, among the best of the rest in the top half of the table.
That was the dream. The reality is that Saints are back where they started: demoralised, in 18th place and looking over their shoulder once again at the Championship.
While things are not yet as worrying as the final days of Hughes’s reign, and the faith of the club’s board and the majority of supporters remains with Hasenhuttl, there is a fairly sizeable elephant in the room.
A 9-0 home defeat can’t help but send shockwaves through a club. Last week’s thrashing by Leicester was, unsurprisingly, the worst in Southampton’s 133-year history and the joint-biggest in the Premier League’s 24 years.
“After 9-0 there is no more discussion necessary. I think everybody knows in that way we cannot continue,” Hasenhuttl said this week.
“These days are new for me but I’m now a better manager than before and this is the good thing from this game. And if the players see it the same they know that they are better players in the future.”
If there was any doubt before, that shocking and embarrassing result means any long-term goals of completing a complex systemic change have been put on hold. The time being is all about results and climbing out of the hole Saints have dug for themselves.
The leadership in achieving that goal must come from Hasenhuttl – he is the manager and quite frankly there is no-one else around. The departures of vice-chairman Les Reed in November 2018, chairman Ralph Krueger in April and director of football operations Ross Wilson last month has left a void at St Mary’s.
Hasenhuttl also lost his assistant manager Danny Rohl to Bayern Munich in August. It is up to him and his players to turn around form which has seen Southampton win just two of their opening 10 league games.
Unfortunately for him that task begins at just about the worst possible venue. Having taken the positives from the 3-1 defeat by Manchester City in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday, Saints are back at the Etihad Stadium to face the defending Premier League champions on Saturday.
Hasenhuttl is not expecting a miracle. Instead he wants his players to be “as nasty as possible” and “a little bit more self-confident”. Achieve that, work hard over the November international break and, with a kinder run of fixtures around the corner, Saints might just be able to turn things around and avoid relegation for the third successive season.
After an away game to Arsenal on 23 November, they face Watford, Norwich and Newcastle in quick succession, who currently sit 20th, 19th and 17th respectively, before fixtures against West Ham and Aston Villa in the run-up to Christmas.
It might not be where they want to be, but Southampton are once again in survival mode. Only once disaster has been averted and stability assured elsewhere in the club can Hasenhuttl’s worthy tactical goals be fully pursued.
Main image credit: Getty Images