When Southampton confirmed Ralph Hasenhüttl as their new manager in December 2018, the move was seen as a major coup for the Saints.
The Austrian – nicknamed “The Alpine Klopp” – was considered one of the Bundesliga’s brightest tactical minds during his two-year stint with RB Leipzig before his switch to the Premier League and Hasenhüttl’s philosophy has been a hit in England.
A proponent of the same gegenpressing methodology that allowed Jurgen Klopp to transform Liverpool into Premier League champions, Hasenhüttl’s outlined his strategy in one of his first interviews following his move to St. Mary’s Stadium.
“Pressing. Hunting. Be hungry. When you have the ball, find a quick decision, quick transition to the front. It's about being emotional, being full of passion. Also, keep the tempo on a high level and don't slow down the game. That's what I think the people want to see.”
Hasenhüttl’s basic Southampton structure
When Ralph Hasenhüttl took the reins in 2018, Southampton were embroiled in a relegation battle and the Austrian first chose to deploy his new troops in a more conservative 3-5-2 shape.
However, with safety secured and a full pre-season to integrate his ideas during the summer of 2019, Hasenhüttl’s 4-2-2-2 was eventually unleashed, though there were more than a few bumps in the road before his preferred system took hold.
Under Hasenhüttl’s instruction, Southampton play with a standard four-man defence and two holding midfielders, though beyond the rigid back six, the structure becomes a little more unorthodox.
Occupying the spaces between the screening midfielders and the strikers, two scheming wide attackers patrol the channels, positioned further infield than traditional wingers and a little to the right and left of where a number ten might play.
The placement of the inventively-placed attacking midfielders allows Southampton to create overloads, especially when out of possession, with the fullbacks tasked with bombing on to provide width when the ball is under control
With a “net” of players choking play through the middle, Southampton can hunt in packs to overcrowd and harass opponents easily, while the close proximity of their front four makes the Saints’ incredibly difficult to play through.
The tactical philosophy – run, run, run
Built on a heavy workload of pressing and rapid transitions, Hasenhüttl’s Saints run tirelessly and played direct, vertical passes on turnovers to create chances within ten seconds of winning possession back.
Playing with intensity and attitude are key tenets to how Southampton operate and the Saints’ expertly-drilled harassment under Hasenhüttl means few teams enjoy playing against them.
Speaking during an interview in 2019, Hasenhüttl said: “We want to be disgusting to play against. The game doesn’t start when we have the ball. Our game starts when the opponent has the ball.
“I was always a little bit compared to Jurgen [Klopp] because my core of working is working against the ball. Pep Guardiola has a fantastic play against the ball. They are often reduced to ball possession but nobody sees that he has a very good game against the ball. Everybody tries to go his own way and I am very convinced about what we are doing.”
Just like Guardiola’s City, Southampton lean heavily on tactical fouls to break up their opponent’s rhythm, however. Combining their relentless workrate with hefty dollops of aggression, the Saints tend to commit above-average numbers of fouls when playing “against the ball”.
At the time of writing (January 24) only Watford have conceded more free kicks on average per game (13.8) than Southampton (12) in the 2021/22 Premier League season, while the Saints finished 4th for the same metric in Hasenhüttl’s first full campaign in charge (2019/20).
In midfielder pair James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu, Hasenhüttl has a pair of willing enforcers and both players tend to rack up plenty of bookings through their individual campaigns.
Triggering the counter-press
It would be unfair to paint Southampton as hard-working, foul merchants however, and when their narrow counter-pressing style is on song, the Saints are a fantastic team to watch.
Southampton are rarely passive under Hasenhüttl and they tend to play with a high line against the majority of teams, pushing forward in numbers to press the opposition defence in the final third.
The Saints like to spring forward in scintillating moments of sporting orchestration once certain passages of play, or triggers, kick them into gear.
“It can be a long pass. It takes a long time for the ball to reach the next player. This is the time we can move to the ball, put pressure on the guy who gets it. If we do it together and have the right distances between the players, we have a big chance to win the ball in areas where we can have an overload of players”, said Hasenhüttl when discussing triggers in 2019.
“That’s the philosophy I am focusing on. The best playmaker is the ball winner. Statistically, the chance of creating a goal is higher within 10 seconds of winning the ball.”
Braced for the right moment in their narrow 4-2-2- shape, Southampton’s players explode into action when triggered, led into action by one of an energetic front two – which at present is either Che Adams or Armando Broja.
For example, the Saints enjoy punishing centre-halves who exchange too many passes, pressing on to them with both strikers, while supporting players close off passing lanes to teammates.
With the player in possession’s options limited, they are forced to either retreat with a pass back to their own goalkeeper or they are panicked into a wild clearance, where Southampton’s players are waiting to pounce.
A weakness? Possession and attacking
Hasenhüttl’s philosophy and 4-2-2-2 formation is built to squeeze every inch of value out of the Austrian’s favoured counter-pressing ideas, indeed, Southampton tend to create most of their chances this way.
However, in possession phases when they are required to move the ball with purpose, the Saints can sometimes be found wanting in terms of ingenuity.
With runners and harriers in attacking midfield positions rather than true creators, Southampton’s maneuvers can often be reduced to crosses from fullbacks into loaded penalty areas.
The four players playing furthest forward will generally just flood the box in an attempt to gain numerical superiority and an aerially dominant defence will generally find it easy to repel deliveries from deep areas.
Ralph Hasenhüttl is keenly aware of his team’s limitations when controlling possession, however, and it’s common to see Southampton ceded more of the ball in an attempt to play to their counter-punching strengths.
The Saints have been averaging 48.075% possession per Premier League game since Hasenhüttl’s arrival, though their expertly coordinated pressing against the ball means that having less of it works in their favour.