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Ralph Hasenhuttl: Our struggles this year can make Southampton stronger

Southampton finished the 2020/21 Premier League season down in 15th place, having at one time been top of the table; Ralph Hasenhuttl's side let in 68 league goals last time out; the Saints have since sold Ryan Bertrand to Leicester and kick off the new campaign at Everton on August 14

Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl

Ralph Hasenhuttl and his coaching brains have been hard at work all summer on the south coast, analysing the previous campaign in minute detail to come up with a plan - and a new way of playing - to ensure Southampton replicate their impressive form of 2020, rather than 2021, this season.

The Saints briefly topped the Premier League last November do not forget, as well as reaching the FA Cup semi-finals, only for an alarming collapse in the second half of the campaign to threaten their top-flight survival, something the Austrian is desperate to put right this time around.

In fact, when Southampton beat Liverpool 1-0 at St Mary's at the start of the year, they went level with fourth-placed Tottenham (and even Man City) on 29 points and only four behind the then champions at the top of the standings.

Danny Ings celebrates after giving Southampton the early lead against Liverpool
Image: Danny Ings celebrates his winner for Southampton against Liverpool in January

In their final 21 league matches, though, Hasenhuttl's side managed to collect just 14 more points to finish down in 15th place.

"We have shown already how good we can be in 2020, in 2021 so far not," said Hasenhuttl when we caught up ahead of the new campaign.

"But it is up to us - the staff, trainer, coaches - to change the things that did not go well and analyse the last season very well and come up with the right answers for the issues we had, especially in the second half of the season.

"And to strengthen the team with a few signings and a different way of playing football and come back stronger, because the Premier League will again be a little bit stronger than last season.

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"Every year it is getting a little bit harder to compete with the teams and yes we are looking at a very interesting season."

When Hasenhuttl talks about things not going well last time around, he means the team's defending, especially in the second half of the campaign.

Southampton ended up letting in a mammoth 68 league goals last season - not helped, clearly, by losing 9-0 at Man Utd in February, the second season in a row they had been on the wrong of such a scoreline - with only relegated West Brom (73) shipping more.

And yet according to the XG stats, they should have actually conceded just 57 - suggesting perhaps issues at the back with concentration and costly individual errors.

"Clean sheets is a bigger target for us," admits Hasenhuttl "and we had eight after the first half of the season, and we ended up with nine, so you can see that the second half was not that successful.

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"And our average number of goals scored would normally lead to a top-10 finish, the goals we conceded is normally for relegation, so we have to change this part of our game definitely."

And while those eye-watering defensive numbers clearly concerned the Saints coaching team, it has been a case of carefully dissecting them in pre-season and then formulating a plan - and even adopting a new style of play - to help fix the problem.

"Firstly, we have to look at the stats for what the reason was for conceding the goals," he said.

"What was the situation where we conceded the most? Was it more in our own possession that we concede the most, or was it more that they played through our pressing so that we were not organised enough? Has it been different individual mistakes?

"So we made a very good analysis, we adapted our sessions to some ways of pressing, a little bit deeper sometimes and to find solutions for some moments that we will do a little bit different in the future that will make us stronger and it has gone quite well.

"We will have a few more tests in preseason hopefully against strong sides that will show us our weaknesses, and what we have to do to adapt.

It it is up to us to change the things that did not go well, analyse the last season and come up with the right answers for the issues we had, especially in the second half of the season and come back stronger."
Ralph Hasenhuttl

"But it is a long way to go, it is a marathon, a long run - 38 games in the Premier League - and I do not need to tell you about the strength of the opponents.

"They exploit any weakness you have and the important thing is to stay flexible and learn to adapt during the season, even if there are times when you are not playing so many times.

"So we use his time very well to work on a few parts of our game and hopefully we will see it."

One other statistic that really stood out last season was the 23 points the Saints lost from winning positions, the joint second-worst record in the top flight, although Hasenhuttl looks at this in a different and less negative way.

"First, it is a positive thing as to have the lead is never a bad position, it means we are doing something right in the beginning, otherwise it would not have happened," he reasons. "And to extend it is not always so easy as sometimes we were in the lead against Liverpool or Man City and then yes, it is quite tough.

"I remember we were 2-0 up against Man Utd at home and then they made a few subs and we lost in the end, so yes we dropped points. It sounds a little bit more bad than it is as we were in the lead in a lot of games that we also went on to win, especially 2020 where we won a lot of games."

As Hasenhuttl alluded to above, last season Southampton defended like a team fighting relegation, especially in the new year, but attacked as if they were a side competing for Europe.

The now departed Danny Ings fired again up front, top scoring with 12 league goals, while behind him fellow England international and captain James Ward-Prowse was involved in 15 goals, including seven assists and four more direct free kicks.

And with the Saints' 20 goals from set-pieces bettered only by Chelsea last season, Hasenhuttl is excited by his side's attacking options this campaign.

"First I must say that we have especially in attack, more alternatives this season," he said.

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"The guys are looking sharp, we have got Mohamed Elyounoussi back as a No 10, all the other players are fit, Nathan Tella can take the next step, Che Adams came back from his national team with a lot of self-confidence as he did a good job at the Euros.

"We have more quality, and this is good for me to have more alternatives across 38 games. And with Ward-Prowse it is a little bit more difficult with his position because Oriol Romeu is back and this is also a player we really missed in the second half of the season with injury, and he is a fantastic player.

"But in his position we are not so strong with the number of players."

One way for the south coast club to kick on next season would be to bring in more quality players, especially following the exits of Ryan Bertrand and Mario Lemina, with Hasenhuttl acknowledging his club would need "to be clever" in this summer's transfer market.

So far, though, only Theo Walcott, Tino Livramento, Romain Perraud and Dynel Simeu have arrived, with the Austrian also wanting to add another centre-back and holding midfielder before the window shuts at the end of August.

"We said before the season we need to strength in a few positions - full back, centre back, No 6," said Hasenhuttl.

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"We signed Perraud and he fits perfectly into our mentality, his physical qualities are also really good and I'm sure he will make an immediate impact on the team, but we need even more players in that position.

"And finally in the centre-back position we need cover. Jannik Vestergaard comes back from his holiday and it will also take time before he is fit for the group and in his position, a centre-back who can also play No 6 would help."

Southampton may need those reinforcements though, and quickly, looking at their tricky start to the season, with Everton, Man Utd - live on Sky Sports - Man City and Chelsea all to face in their first few games.

Hasenhuttl, however, does not see it that way.

"If you want to look for an easy start, then do not look at the Premier League as there is no easy start for any team," he said.

"To win a Premier League is always super tough for us and the most important thing for us is not to concentrate on fixtures coming up, but focus more on your behaviour, quality, did you have a good preseason.

"We have so far, with only Ward-Prowse injured - and we try to build a foundation that we can build up from during the season and then setting the right targets from the first day."

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