Ralph Hasenhuttl: Inside the mind of the man Southampton are pinning their survival hopes on
Watch Southampton vs Arsenal live on Renault Super Sunday from 12.30pm on Sky Sports Premier League
By Greg Whelan
Last Updated: 16/12/18 12:02pm
He was, by his own admission, not the greatest of players. But as a coach Ralph Hasenhuttl has made a significant impression. As he prepares to take charge of his first game at St Mary's against Arsenal on Super Sunday, Greg Whelan caught up with the man whom Southampton are pinning their hopes of Premier League survival.
"I say that in my career until now I never took the easy decisions," he says. "I always wanted to have it hard and maybe that's my goal. It's interesting for me and that's what I want to see."
As a coach the former Austrian international striker has certainly done it the hard way. He made his name in Germany by winning promotion to the second tier with VfR Aalen. He then took Ingolstadt into the Bundesliga - and kept them there.
"We changed the squad a little bit," he says, "and we had more quality in playing without the ball, more quality in pressing earlier. We were a team which no one liked to play against."
The man they call 'The Klopp of the Alps' in Germany also helped newly-promoted RB Leipzig reach for the summit. They finished second in their first Bundesliga campaign.
"The kind of play we had was really something special," he adds. "It was about winning the ball and scoring in 10 seconds. We were famous for this. But the secret of our success was our commitment against the ball. In this, we were the best in the Bundesliga."
The arrival of Mauricio Pochettino as Southampton manager in January 2013 signalled a change of direction at St Mary's. With some astute recruitment and the promotion of younger players they became known as a team which was all about pressing and possession football. Their appointment of Hasenhuttl is a bid to rediscover that blueprint.
"We speak about pressing, hunting, being hungry, when you have the ball making a quick decision," he explains. "It's about being emotional, being full of passion and keeping the tempo at a high level, not slowing down the game. That's what I think people want to see here."
His first game in charge was at Cardiff last weekend. He saw his team lose to a goal which stemmed from a defensive error by Jannik Westergaard. It was Southampton's ninth Premier League defeat of the season.
"At this level, it's not possible to make it as easy as we did for Cardiff," he says. "At the time we felt a little bit confident because we saw in the second half that our game was rising, we got better and better. We had them under control and then came this moment when we lost everything."
In his first full week of working with the players on the training ground, Hasenhuttl says his primary focus has been on regaining possession.
"At the moment the most important thing is the transition, what will happen when we lose the ball, how we react when we win the ball," he says. "When you go after it to press it and suddenly there's a chance where you didn't think you had one. You saw that in our game against Cardiff. If Callum Paterson hadn't gone for that ball he wouldn't have scored."
On his arrival at the club, Hasenhuttl told reporters that he could not guarantee that he would achieve the results that would keep Southampton in the Premier League.
"If you want to have guarantees you have to buy a washing machine," he said. What, therefore, can we expect from his Southampton team this season in the position that they are currently in?
"You can expect that we'll be working as a team in the future, that every guy knows what to do and will do everything he can to show this on the pitch, and when we do so we'll have better chances to win and better chances to withstand the challenges that we're facing at the moment."
In his coaching career so far, Hasenhuttl's teams have shown they can survive - and thrive - at this level. Southampton are desperate to reap the benefit of his experience.