Behind-closed doors and Saints still continue to be conjurors of their own downfall


Crowd or no crowd, Ralph Hasenhuttl had seen what played out on Thursday night all before. Death, taxes and Southampton self-imploding at the back are three certainties in life.

It was five minutes from time and Saints had long enough to trigger their second self-implosion of the game and their umpteenth of the season. Jack Stephens was hovering around the tunnel waiting to find out if the decision to show a straight red to him would be held up. It came after a loose pass from exile-hopeful Pierre Emile Hojbjerg, whose stripping of the captaincy last week added another fascinating sub-plot to Saints’ already kamikaze season. Pre-match, Southampton’s eight errors leading to opposition goals were the most of any team Premier League; against Arsenal, they made it 10.

Meanwhile, Hasenhuttl stood motionless. A brief shriek of anguish accompanied a change of stance, putting his hands on his hips for the first time in the game. However minute, it marked a sudden realisation that nothing at all had changed at St Mary’s.

Even for their own innovative standards at creating dramatic downfalls, Saints’ latest effort against Arsenal was quite the spectacular. For all the rallying shouts and calls for action throughout the sweltering hot evening, the disdained shriek Hasenhuttl let out when Joe Willock’s goal stood perfectly captured his day.

March was the last time Hasenhuttl patrolled his technical area and soon discovered that despite playing football amidst an ongoing global pandemic, and somehow playing in a 32,000 seater with not one supporter, St Mary’s provided a sense of familiarity to these chaotic times. But not for the reasons Hasenhuttl would have wanted.

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Photo: Jacob Tanswell

In truth, the whole 90 minutes were a balancing act for the Saints boss. For all the silence, distant shouts and sprays of disinfectant, a certain Austrian could be heard incessantly bellowing from the touchline. It began with shouts and claps of positivity, with “Go, Go, Go!” the phrase he resorted too early on as he urged maximum intensity. But in a first-half that flawlessly epitomised the helter-skelter season Southampton have experienced, Hasenhuttl went through the full mill of emotions.

Early optimism evaporated into dismay, ultimately becoming full-out frustration soon after Alex McCarthy was the latest creator of self-destruction. Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah did his best Danny Ings impression by chasing down McCarthy and sticking the ball into an empty net. 

Despite seeing his back five shoot themselves in the foot once more, Hasenhuttl’s tone and body language remained vibrant. He continued to effortlessly bark orders onto the pitch in English, then turn around and spontaneously speak to the bench in his native German tongue. There were brief interludes of encouragement too, with the now-mandatory appraisal of Danny Ings. “Good Ingsy!” was the shout midway through the first-half as their undisputed player of the year almost conjured up another bit of red boot magic.

But as Saints’ issues deepened, Hasenhuttl soon cut an isolated figure. In spite of the social distancing measures where coaching staff are scattered, it was an image that has become rather symptomatic of his time at the club, where each passing month the former RB Leipzig boss grows in dependence. This was fortified during lockdown, where a tangible concept of his football ideology was developed – dubbed the iBook – to be referred to by each age group within Southampton’s set-up.

But the hallmarks of Hasenhuttl were not there on Thursday. In fairness, there were mitigating circumstances. Remember a time where we could watch/play Sunday league football league football? Well, the atmosphere was exactly that. Flat. Not exactly conducive to Saints’ high octane brand of football. The only noise created aside from the managers, came through the substitutes, who intermittently shunted words of encouragement.

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The 30 degree heat didn’t help either, which, again, is not helpful to Hasenhuttl football and to a side that had the third-best PPDA (passes per defensive action) before lockdown.

But there could be no escaping that Mikel Arteta’s men went to the south coast and did everything Saints do, but better. The first goal was reminiscent of an archetypal Hasenhuttl press, where Nketiah’s intensity in closing down had quickly cut off any passing angles for McCarthy to play out to.

In possession, Arteta matched a variation of the 4-4-2 system, using Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the aforementioned Nketiah down the middle. Out of it, they reverted to a 5-3-2 shape, nullifying and adding protection to cover the threat of Ings. It certainly didn’t take a tactical mastermind to work out Southampton’s weaknesses. Just take a look at the two defeats against West Ham, where the combination of Sébastien Haller and Michail Antonio ran riot up top.

Like all tactical systems, despite each manager’s little nuances, there are deficiencies within it that can be exploited. It was painstakingly obvious that Arteta targeted the flanks and continually yelled at his men to switch the play. This pulled the narrow midfield of Saints apart, working them from side-to-side whilst they still attempted to apply pressure on the ball; not nice to be doing on the hottest day of the year. It also exposed the extremely vulnerable Yan Valery, who after a few rallying words from his boss early on, was hooked at half-time.

Another Alex McCarthy mistake for Willock’s goal put the game to bed for Arsenal and left Hasenhuttl done for the day. The patrolling, almost perpetual movements of the previous 85 minutes had vanished. “Ori! Come come!” as he called in the direction of the players in the stands. Striker Danny Ings was out of the game and defensive midfielder Oriol Romeu was brought on.

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The game was gone. Regardless of Hasenhuttl’s best touchline endeavours, he had seen his defence once again confounded at the thought of having to defend properly.

Hasenhuttl bumped fists with Arteta upon the sound of the final whistle and began to congregate with his coaching staff. While you could not exactly hear what was said between them, you could hasten a guess. The fourth best side on the road but yet the worst at home. The St Mary’s hoodoo had happened again.

Minutes later, the COVID-19 safety officers authorised Hasenhuttl to make the walk back down the St Mary’s tunnel and to stew on witnessing another Southampton self-implosion. It was a feeling he remembered all to well.


About Author

Football, Boxing and Cricket correspondent from Hampshire, covering southern sport. Editor and Head of Boxing at Prost International. Accreditated EFL & EPL journalist.

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