At surface level, Southampton’s surge up the Premier League table might look like a consequence of circumstance. No European football and plenty of rest between matches means that after 14 games, they’re right in the mix for a top-six place.
There is far more to it than that. Southampton’s strong start to this unorthodox season is the first shoots of growth after an off-field restructuring that promises to bloom even greater as time goes on.
Since February, following the return of Matt Crocker to the club from The Football Association as director of football, manager Ralph Hasenhuttl has been overseeing the enforcement of what has become known as ‘The Southampton Playbook’.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s ‘Southampton Playbook’ has been inspiring their rise up the table
Southampton are sixth, three points off second and have impressed throughout the season
The work is also down to the return of Matt Crocker (left) who is the club’s director of football
It has seen a number fascinating things happen at Southampton. For starters, the youth teams all now play the same style of football as Hasenhuttl’s first team side to ensure a more fluid progression into the senior set-up.
In September, Southampton announced an academy revamp with their Under 23 side becoming a B team. Their training schedule is planned to differ from the senior side, allowing Hasenhuttl and his staff the time to watch the players in action and even participate, so that the manager can then pick who he wants to join the first-team.
‘We have tried to make it more like a second first-team,’ Crocker said. ‘The first-team’s style of play is very different to what it has been previously.
‘There was a real need from talking to Ralph that we prepare the players in a different way so that, when they do step up and train or play with the first team, they are doing so with more confidence and a proper understanding of the sessions they are taking part in.’
In turn, this will see Southampton sending less players out on loan for first-team experience. They will cut their teeth in the senior squad, as long as Hasenhuttl backs them to step up.
‘Statistics tell us, in the main, that the players come through our academy, train with the first team, join the first-team squad and then play for the first team,’ Crocker told The Athletic earlier this year. ‘Very rarely have we had successful players who have gone on loan and then come back. We have moved away from the loan system. The B team will be our strongest asset.’
The axing of loan moves ties into another major aspect of ‘The Southampton Playbook’ which has seen Hasenhuttl identify his first-team line-up as essentially comprising of six positions on the pitch for his 4-2-2-2 formation; goalkeeper, full-back, centre-back, defensive midfield, attacking midfield and striker.
And in that set-up, players have improved immeasurably. Oriol Romeu has flourished in defensive midfield while James Ward Prowse has added an extra level of dynamism to his play in the final third.
Southampton’s squad has been finessed to match up to the style Hasenhuttl is overseeing
James Ward-Prowse has flourished in midfield this season and has taken the captaincy on
Kyle Walker-Peters, signed from Tottenham after a loan spell last season, has filled in seamlessly at right back while Che Adams is finding his feet in attack after a difficult start to life in the Premier League – he failed to score in his first 28 Southampton appearances.
There will be a greater onus on Adams across the Christmas period. Star striker Danny Ings, who has scored six goals in 12 games so far this season, is facing another spell on the sidelines with a hamstring issue.
It is worth recognising too that Southampton’s improvement this season comes alongside losing captain Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to Tottenham. He has been instrumental to Tottenham’s push up the table under Jose Mourinho this season, and that reflects too on the loss he was to Southampton.
After Saturday’s slender 1-0 defeat by Manchester City, Southampton are sixth in the Premier League table but are only three points off second. They face Fulham, West Ham and Liverpool across the festive period, a run of games that serve as a springboard for their aims coming into the second half of the season.
Southampton’s improvement comes off the back of losing key man Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg
This season represents Hasenhuttl’s first real crack at the Premier League with a Southampton side that is starting to be forged in his image.
He has finessed his squad and improved players so that they are capable of enforcing his high-octane pressing style and with the academy reading off the same page, the bridge to the first team that unearthed the likes of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale has been rebuilt.
The Austrian is most certainly in this for the long haul.
‘I think it is the perfect fit,’ director Martin Semmens told the Daily Echo when Hasenhuttl penned a new four-year deal in June.
‘I’m not so sure whether it’s us needing him or him needing us. Ralph’s mentality is all about having a project.’
The signing of Theo Walcott has been astute by Southampton – but not a sentimental one
And on the training pitch, as detailed as Hasenhuttl’s methods are, he conveys his message clearly and precisely. Walcott was enamoured by the plans Hasenhuttl shared with him when they held talks about a loan move from Everton.
For the Southampton boss, Walcott’s return to St Mary’s was completely void of sentimentality; the forward had specific attributes that could contribute to Southampton’s development.
That said, he is surprised by how quickly Walcott has adjusted.
Speaking after the 2-0 win over Newcastle in September, a victory that temporarily moved Southampton top of the table, Hasenhuttl said: ‘I am very happy – I can say surprised – that he learned so quickly what we are doing here.
‘This is the good thing for me. It seems that he’s a tactically experienced guy.’
Hasenhuttl admitted that he has been surprised by how quickly Walcott has adapted to his side
It used to be, years ago under Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, that a yardstick for Southampton’s progress in the Premier League was to compare their position to when they were in League One, or the Championship.
Now, it is worth remembering that it is narrowly over two years from when they sacked Mark Hughes as manager – an appointment which surmised just how much they had lost their way both on and off the pitch.
Their team was a mishmash of players signed by Hughes and predecessors Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino. This is now a new era for Southampton in the Premier League – a side that is capable of sustaining a place in the top eight, at the very least, in the standings.
The next chapters of their story will be fascinating to watch unfold and all the signs suggest they will be positive.