Southampton failed to gain anything from Manchester City as they fell to only their second home defeat of the season, with Raheem Sterling’s early strike proving to be enough to give the visitors all three points at St. Mary’s.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side huffed and puffed to force an opening in City’s defence but fell just short on this occasion. Hasenhuttl will come to learn that maintaining a spot in the European spaces is all about fine margins in games. The Citizens produced one moment of magic in the first half, proving to be the difference between the sides on the night. It goes without saying, Guardiola has an array of world-class talent at his disposal but it came to nobody’s surprise when the ever so reliant Kevin De Bruyne and Sterling linked together to score the only goal of the game.
The Southampton faithful won’t be disheartened by the result, however, as their performance justified something from the match, with Hasenhuttl’s side showcasing real grit until the final whistle. Development within the squad is clear to see, proving yet again that their position in the table is no fluke.
Hasenhuttl also reinstated his contentment with his side’s performance:
“I saw unbelievable effort from my side and today we underlined why we were in the top 4.”
Ironing out defensive frailties
Hasenhuttl is a manager who doesn’t leave any stones unturned. The Austrian’s depth to detail in analysis after games has been a significant factor towards Southampton’s upturn in form, leading to their phenomenal start to the campaign.
This time last season, Southampton were planted 19th in the Premier League with nine points after 13 games. A whole year later, Southampton have gained 24 points from 13 games, sitting sixth in the table. That is some turnaround.
So what has Hasenhuttl changed from the beginning of his tenure to transform Southampton from relegation candidates to real European contenders?
As the famous quote goes, ‘The best defence is a good offence’. Hasenhuttl has clearly pondered on this and has strived to make things right at the back this season. The changes implemented have gained his side staggering rewards. Leaking too many goals has been a common denominator ever since Mauricio Pellegrino was appointed in 2017. It has been a refreshing change for Southampton supporters to see their side maintain clean sheets this campaign.
Saints could only manage to keep a dull total of nine clean sheets last season compared to the five Southampton have already gained after just 13 games. Much of that has been down to the new system, scrapping the high line has brought significant benefits. A deeper line has also accompanied Jannick Vestergaard to make up for the latter’s lack of pace. This change has reaped huge rewards, specifically towards the 6ft 6in defender. Ever since the Dane has come into the side he has been nothing short of a revelation, contributing to winning the most aerial duels (54) and clearances (57) within the team. Vestergaard also attains another string to his bow, his exquisite range of passing. This was yet again highlighted against Manchester City, contributing to seven successful long passes. The defensive ace is starting to replicate the performances Virgil Van Dijk had during his tenure.
The defensive acquisition of Kyle Walker-Peters has also steadied the ship at the back for the Saints. The English full-back has been a true joy to watch so far and has been the perfect fit to Hasenhuttl’s side. Complacency at the back was becoming an all too regular occurrence, with Southampton’s academy graduate, Yan Valery often falling victim to switching off; consequently getting punished by the opposition. Southampton collectively conceded 10 goals from individual errors last season. This time out, the manager has ironed out the problems to suppress their defensive woes through new acquisitions as well as developing Vestergaard to the level Saints fans knew he was capable of reaching. This change has been integral to fixing previous defensive frailties as the Saints are yet to concede a goal from an individual error this season.
The solidified back four have built a great understanding with and without the ball. Their graft inside the training ground is starting to pay off, moulding into the reliable back four Hasenhuttl desires. Southampton’s defence have displayed vast improvements from last season; on average, Southampton conceded 1.58 goals per game compared to this season’s 1.36. The transformation of Saints’ backline has been an integral factor to their success this season.
When former Southampton skipper, Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg left to join Jose Mourinho’s Spurs, a clear void was left in the midfield. It begged the question, can Oriol Romeu fulfil the role Hojbjerg left? The Spaniard has answered the questions emphatically, becoming the unsung hero at the club. Romeu became a forgotten man last season as he fell down the pecking order, behind team-mates James Ward-Prowse and Hojbjerg.
This season, Romeu’s fortunes have turned for the best with manager Hasenhuttl installing faith in him again; it is fair to say that Romeu has grasped the opportunity with both hands. New acquisition Ibrahima Diallo is still yet to start a game due to Romeu’s upturn in form. The defensive midfielder has recollected his form from the 16/17 season under Claude Puel, where he deservedly achieved Player Of The Season.
The revitalised man has contributed to the most tackles in the Premier League (51), making the perfect midfield partner for Skipper Ward-Prowse. The defensive nature of Romeu allows Ward-Prowse to maraud forward which has proven to be pivotal this season. The duo has achieved an incredible number of 390 ball recoveries, integral to Hasenhuttl’s system to start a quick counter-attack from a turnover.
Romeu has also been amongst the goals, netting once in a comfortable 2-0 win against West Bromwich Albion as well as setting up Nathan Redmond against Sheffield United.
The former Chelsea man possesses clear talent in the middle of the park and Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has not been short of praise:
“They have an exceptional manager. I know him from his time in Germany. He has experience at the back and one of the best midfielders in the league, Romeu.”