Ralph Hasenhüttl will not be getting comfortable any time soon and has often turned to the same analogy to warn his Southampton squad against complacency by saying that if they lean back they will immediately foot the bill, but the turn of the year marks an appropriate time to reflect on striking progress. Only Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United have won more games over the past 12 months and Southampton head into Monday’s match at home to the champions and league leaders within touching distance of the top four, despite failing to win any of their past four matches.
Hasenhüttl’s high-pressing 4-2-2-2 – a formation he utilised as RB Leipzig qualified for the Champions League – has been key to suffocating opponents and a vital cog in that system at Southampton has been Stuart Armstrong, who can vouch that such a style requires hard work. “There’s a lot of running, a lot of energy, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that go into it but when you come off the pitch with three points, it’s all worth it,” Armstrong says. “The manager has made it clear that everyone needs to work hard to be a part of this system, and for it to work – that is the essence of it. I was under no illusions that it wouldn’t be smooth sailing all the time – and it was a difficult start, definitely – but the perseverance is what is most satisfying.”
Armstrong, a softly spoken Scotsman from Inverness, is modest and does a good line in self-deprecation but, beyond his gentlemanly manner and easy-going demeanour, the graceful midfielder has become one of Hasenhüttl’s most trusted performers. He arrived at Southampton two and a half years ago in search of a fresh challenge following a near impeccable four seasons at Celtic as they went 585 days unbeaten and twice won the treble as part of the ‘Invincibles’ under Brendan Rodgers. Armstrong has never tasted defeat in the Old Firm derby, which takes place at Ibrox on Saturday. “They were fantastic games, incredible atmospheres and just a great thing to experience as a player, something that I will cherish forever; fantastic memories and I’m very fortunate to have not played in a losing one.”
Before breaking through at Dundee United, where he played alongside Andy Robertson, now Armstrong’s captain at international level, he enrolled on an Open University law degree but, three years into it, a move to Celtic meant midweeks were suddenly filled with Champions League trips to the Camp Nou or Parc des Princes. “I had to write for a couple of extensions from time to time … that they granted, thankfully,” he says, laughing. “There were some late nights, some rushed essays – probably not my finest pieces of work – but I got it done in the end. I was so far into it that I thought I needed to finish it.”
Given such grounding, perhaps it is no surprise he was handed a role on Southampton’s unofficial jury for dressing-room misdemeanours, alongside the captain, James Ward-Prowse, and the defender Jack Stephens, who administers the punishments for breaking punctuality rules or leaving kit on pitches. “I have to keep quiet … policeman’s code means I cannot give away any confidentialities. All I can tell you is that James Ward-Prowse is an informant,” he says, grinning. Armstrong says the role fell into his lap but was he seen as a safe pair of hands? “Maybe that would be the nice way of putting it,” he says, laughing. “Maybe there was an element of trust there.”
Armstrong hopes to play a part at Euro 2020, where Scotland will renew their rivalry with England after qualifying for a major tournament for the first time in 23 years. Armstrong was part of the squad that toasted a penalty shootout victory in Belgrade by serenading the goalkeeper David Marshall at the team hotel with a conga and 80s disco – “of what I remember of it, it was brilliant” – and, while his immediate focus remains on Southampton, there is no escaping the magnitude of that Group D date at Wembley on 18 June.
The last time the nations met, at Hampden Park in June 2017, an England team featuring the Southampton defender Ryan Bertrand snatched a stoppage-time equaliser. “I still get abused for not clearing the ball far enough and they spun it back in [to the box], and Harry Kane volleyed it in, so there was a bit of a sour ending to that one,” Armstrong says. “Hopefully we will get a bit of revenge when we go to Wembley in the summer. The country has waited such a long time to reach a major tournament. I think you could see the happiness, the relief and the pure joy to have finally done it.”
Hasenhüttl has noted a shift in Southampton’s mentality and Armstrong believes they are finding a way to pick up points from games they might previously have lost. The manager has been loth to cast too many predictions but how high does Armstrong sense Southampton can soar? “I would share that reluctance … did you know I was going to say that?” he says, breaking into laughter. “We know how strongly we believe in ourselves and how strongly we have performed in certain points this season. We aim for the clouds and, hopefully, we produce the performances to match.”