In late October, things for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton were at an all-time low.
They’d just lost 9-0 to Leicester, equalling a 24-year record for a Premier League defeat. They sat in the relegation zone with the joint-worst goal difference in the division, having played a game more than any of the teams around them.
Summer signing Che Adams, after a fairly bright start, had lost his place in a team who had taken one point from their last 15 available.
Fast forward roughly five months of football, and goodness gracious, things haven’t half turned around. The swaggering south coasters have just run Manchester City into the ground to take their third win in four matches, and have mathematically secured their place in next season’s top flight with five games to spare.
Adams – starting in the league for the first time in 2020 – got the goal that secured it, and he got it from about 40 yards.
You’d scarcely believe Southampton who took to the pitch against City were the same team who looked destined for the drop until Christmas. Hasenhuttl’s ambitious tactical system, which once looked disjointed and not at all in fitting with the attributes of his sluggish squad, looked ruthlessly efficient, and unsettled City – the most formidable possession team in the world – almost to the point of tears.
The game’s exemplary only goal was testament to that. Stuart Armstrong, a recent revelation on the right of midfield, dispossessed Oleksandr Zinchenko with the decisiveness of a tiger pouncing on a gazelle. Adams – who had clearly done his homework – didn’t even need to look to sense Ederson off his line, and with a brain-shattering first-time finish, he looped the ball up and over the Brazilian and into the net.
And this was just 20 minutes in.
Pep Guardiola had said prior to the game that he knew his side were in for a game but he looked shellshocked at what he was seeing. If some blamed the absence of Kevin De Bruyne, but the Belgian was given half an hour to influence the game, and even he could not find the time nor space to make it happen for last season’s champions.
City did have their moments, but the door was frequently slammed in their face. Where Arsenal, Burnley, Newcastle and even Liverpool have stepped off against the Citizens to their own detriment, Southampton were proactive in closing them down. Adams and the again-impressive Danny Ings led that from the front, but they were backed up by a compact unit, as Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek provided an imperious base on which to build.
And then there was Alex McCarthy, whose solitary England cap looks like a cruel joke beside possibly the best goalkeeping performance of the season.
Where once Hasenhuttl’s interpretation of the Gegenpress once looked stubbornly forced upon a team ill-equipped to implement it, given time, it now looks to fit like a glove. Adams may well be the best demonstration of that, a player who has gone from looking out of his depth to delivering a performance – and goal – up there with anything produced in the league this season.
It’s worth noting that all of this intensity came in a fixture which was, in effect, worth nothing to the combative Saints. They were in no danger of the drop before kick-off, while the European places – though now just six points above them – looked out of reach.
It’s still early days for Hasenhuttl, Adams and the Saints, but if this was the type of intensity they delivered at an empty stadium with the pressure off – and against last season’s champions – then you’re left to wonder what they have in store for us in 2020/21, when the sky is their limit, and the likes of Adams, Armstrong and Ings have had another pre-season to refine their game.