The former Southampton manager Nigel Adkins infamously told reporters that the biggest room in his house was the room for improvement but the incumbent at St Mary’s, Ralph Hasenhüttl, tends to use a different analogy when it comes to analysing progress, with the club looking up and hopeful of a top-half finish for the first time in five years.
“Sometimes it is a little bit easier for the young lads because the hard disk is not so full,” Hasenhüttl says. “It is a little bit empty and then you can put things on it easier. The older players need sometimes to put in a little bit more energy to change things because old habits are there. If you want to change them, it takes a lot of energy but they still never stopping trying.”
Impressive strides have been made across this Southampton team, from the teenager Tino Livramento, who is enjoying a breakthrough season, to the quiet evolution of the captain, James Ward-Prowse, via the revival of Oriol Romeu and the unlikely comeback of the goalkeeper Fraser Forster, who turns 34 next month. Romeu has been at the club for seven years but is arguably playing his best football and Forster, who made one Premier League appearance in three years before returning to the lineup at the beginning of last year, has been vital during a run of one defeat in 11 matches which has also earned an FA Cup fifth-round tie at home to West Ham. Mohamed Elyounoussi, another player whose days once appeared numbered, has impressed, too.
Livramento, a £5m recruit from Chelsea, should be in the conversation for the signing of the season given the way he has excelled, and everywhere is evidence of enrichment. The on-loan Chelsea striker Armando Broja has been a gallant presence, striking up a fine partnership with Ché Adams. Kyle Walker-Peters, whose right-back berth was snatched by Livramento, has shone on the opposite flank, leading Hasenhüttl to compare the versatile right-footed defender to Philipp Lahm. Mohammed Salisu, signed from Real Valladolid two years ago, has seized his chance in the heart of defence.
Hasenhüttl’s work at Southampton is more than three years old and he has developed an expressive and hungry teamwho are easy on the eye. Last weekend’s remarkably routine victory over Everton added to the sense that Hasenhüttl has developed a slick machine on modest resources. The result is the beauty of longevity rarely afforded to managers – Hasenhüttl is the top flight’s sixth-longest-serving manager – and his work is surely a triumph for coaching. There have been testing times – the chief executive, Martin Semmens, offered Hasenhüttl his unequivocal backing after the 9-0 defeat by Leicester – but trust in the Austrian and the model has proven well placed. Since Hasenhüttl assumed charge in 2018, when goal difference prevented the club from being bottom, Everton have had five managers.
“You can see a lot of ‘automatism’ in our behaviours,” says Hasenhüttl. “We, as staff, have improved our knowledge about the game in possession massively. We get harder to screen, I think, because for the opponent it is not so easy now to know what is coming up. We have variable tactics. We have not only the 4-2-2-2; we are very flexible. It is never stopping. The most important thing is that you don’t think: ‘Now it goes by itself’ … It is always a big challenge, hard work to put in every week.”
Semmens recently made the point about being transparent about the pathway on offer. Livramento was part of a back four against Everton that had an average age of 22. At 30, Romeu was the starting XI’s oldest outfield player. For now Ibrahima Diallo, 22, is an understudy awaiting his opportunity. “If you don’t let Tino Livramento go to Liverpool one day when they want him, then the next one doesn’t come in,” Semmens said. “We believe that we have created one of the best pathways in the league for the best young players in the country to come in and get better. That’s how we think we’re going to win games.”
The recruitment led by Martyn Glover, who joined in 2019, and Matt Crocker, who arrived as director of football operations later that year, has been shrewd. Southampton absorbed the loss of the experienced Danny Ings, Jannik Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand last summer. Romain Perraud has slotted in at left-back, Salisu at centre-back with some colossal displays and Broja has been a big hit after a slow start. “There were a few people out there who thought without Ingsy and these players that we would struggle this season and the opposite has happened,” says Hasenhüttl, though he knows they have not cracked anything – or maximised the space on the hard drive – yet. “There is still room [on] there. There are still a lot of things to learn.”