Ralph Hasenhuttl could not have been more blatant in his attempt to woo Southampton fans, but his seduction methods did the trick. There was a lot to love about Saints in their logic-defying victory over Arsenal at St Mary’s.
The home supporters were treated to a round of drinks on the new manager before being utterly charmed by a display of endeavour and courage that ended Arsenal’s 22-match unbeaten run and their own streak of 14 winless matches.
Admittedly, Saints fans were vulnerable and perhaps easily impressed. Their previous fella couldn’t muster up a single home win this season, despite every other manager in the Football League displaying the means to do so. Just going to St Mary’s in hope, if not expectation, made a pleasant change for these supporters.
The first home date came 11 days after being introduced to Hasenhuttl and like every other man before him, the Austrian talked the talk. There seems little danger in this instance, though, that Hasenhuttl is all mouth and no trousers. Saints players delivered on their manager’s promises.
Hasenhuttl didn’t promise the world. The former RB Leipzig manager felt the most important improvement would be the most obvious: their work-rate.
“The main goals are to be very proactive and to press very early,” said Hasenhuttl upon being unveiled. “If someone says it is too much running or work, they will fall very quickly behind us.”
Other than Arsenal, no one got left behind at St Mary’s. The selection of Danny Ings for his first game in over a month helped Saints set the tempo from the front with the centre-forward’s work rate in closing down Arsenal in their own half almost as noteworthy as his two first-half headers which gave the Gunners yet another half-time deficit.
Ings led the charge, but unlike previously this season, Saints hunted in packs. A new manager and a new voice often leads to sharp increase in the willingness to do the dirty work but Hasenhuttl’s work on the training ground has already improved the quality of their pressing in units.
The bad habits haven’t all been eradicated – it is unfair to expect that they would be at this early stage. Both Arsenal goals came as a result of defensive mistakes. The first saw Alex Iwobi allowed to drift in behind the home defence to plant the ball on Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s head, while the second goal came after Oriol Romeu dithered in possession in his own defensive third.
Arsenal were still the beneficiaries of a large slice of luck for the second equaliser and Saints could have been forgiven for licking their wounds while sitting back to protect a precious point. But their intensity remained and Hasenhuttl’s changes proved decisive.
5 – Charlie Austin has scored in all five of his Premier League games against Arsenal – only Raheem Sterling versus Bournemouth (6 games) has a better 100% record of scoring against a specific opponent in Premier League history. Routine.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 16, 2018
Shane Long’s introduction was forced upon Saints by Nathan Redmond’s injury and it is most likely that Charlie Austin’s arrival was pre-planned for when Ings was unable maintain his exertion. But the manner in which both substitutes combined to give Saints their late winner was typical of the positivity around the new manager.
Arsenal were certainly generous in their welcome for Hasenhuttl. Another new back three failed to pick up Ings twice in the first half, while Bernd Leno waved the ball on to Austin’s head late on. The Arsenal keeper was immediately criticised but credit should go to Long for one of the most perfectly-weighted passes of the season which tempted Leno underneath it.
The fact that all three Saints goals came from the aerial route when they had not scored a single headed goal all season prior to today is another feather in the new manager’s cap. Austin admitted post-match that Saints had worked a lot on delivering crosses from wide in the build up to this clash and it must come as a concern to Emery that the fault was so easily identified and seized upon.
It was a worrying display for the new Arsenal boss but though he would have preferred to extend their magnificent run to 23 games, the unfamiliar taste of defeat may refocus a few minds in the Gunners’ camp.
Similarly for Saints, this strange sensation is one they have to embrace. It provides immediate vindication for Hasenhuttl’s methods and it appears likely to be the start of a fruitful relationship.