The Saints’ slow march has turned into a sprint…

Seb Stafford Bloor

There’s always that rush of excitement when a new coach enters the league. His new philosophy is celebrated as if it’s a reinvention of the sport, a feature writer is dispatched to his home town to ask penetrating questions of his mother, father and first girlfriend and then…well, then everyone just drifts away.

As they have from Ralph Hasenhuttl. The recovery he led at Southampton last season was one of the finer achievements of the campaign and yet now, ten months into this job, his side are no longer a subject of much interest.

Part of the reason for that is that there’s no pronounced revolution at St Mary’s. Or at least not the sort which jolts the news cycle and grabs attention. There are new players, but not quite enough of them. There are differences in style, but not quite enough of those either. Most of all, though, the results really haven’t been noteworthy enough to warrant proper inspection.

But is that really fair? One of the problems with losing on the opening day of a season, as Southampton did so disastrously to Burnley, is that such a result crushes enthusiasm. It destroys all the theories which were built over the summer and creates a strong, negative first impression which takes a long time to correct.

Heading into Friday night’s game with Bournemouth, Southampton had actually been unbeaten in over a month. They’d won two of their previous three Premier League games, in each case away from home and against sides that, coincidentally, had seen their own form trail off after a contrastingly strong start.

They had also, mainly through Moussa Djenepo, begun scoring some excellent goals. Judgement of him should probably be deferred for a few more months, because he wouldn’t be the first new signing to burn brightly on arrival, but – in profile – he’s indicative of Southampton’s differences. The dour Mark Hughes months will remain connected with a raft of negative traits, but among them was that distrust of flair which meant that even dynamic players like Nathan Redmond had to be assigned specific, inhibiting roles, which often seemed to limit their ability.

Redmond returned from injury against Bournemouth and was under-powered on the night. But his rebirth has certainly been descriptive. As is the reappearance of Sofiane Boufal, exiled to Celta Vigo by Hughes, but embraced by Hasenhuttl. With excellent effect, too, because he was certainly a positive to draw from the defeat to a Bournemouth side in the middle of their own quiet revolution.

Boufal embodies unwavering optimism. He’s the kind of player who might try to beat his marker four times, fail on each occasion, but who would then still take them on one more time. That boundless self-belief may have made previous coaches nervous, but Hasenhuttl has embraced his lack of fear.

In fact, one of the most compelling moments of Friday’s game was Boufal’s long chase back into his own half in the 50th minute. He dispossessed Josh King on the edge of the box, turned, then drove immediately up the field, unsettling Bournemouth with his intent. Less than a minute later, Che Adams was skittled in the penalty area and the referee was pointing to the spot.

Southampton would never complete their comeback, but it’s still possible to ascribe significance to Boufal’s moment and, more generally, to the way Southampton played in that second half. It was indicative of a positive which has been scarce over the past few seasons and, although it didn’t bring an equaliser, it was sufficient to show that this team’s genetics are beginning to change.

In a recent interview with Sky Sports’ Nick Wright, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg spoke eloquently about that evolution. The midfielder is one of the players to have profited from Hasenhuttl’s arrival and he uses telling terms to convey that impact. He speaks of ambition and speed, focus and trust. Of playing with a clear plan, but also with a degree of license not afforded by previous managers.

That’s what was evident after half-time. Watching Southampton attack used to be like seeing pawns advance on a chessboard. It was plodding and predictable and had this palpable deference to what, at any moment, was likely to go wrong. By contrast, while the Bournemouth game ended with that horrendous third goal, the second half as a whole was still characterised by the virtues to which Hojbjerg alluded.

Southampton were aggressive. As Boufal had been, when he stole the ball and thought only of how he might change the game. In previous seasons, irrespective of what his traits are as a player, he would have laid off a pass, nourished himself with the crowd’s applause, and then jogged back into position. That would have been enough; it would have won him a bump in the marks out of ten and a thumbs-up from the technical area.

“It was very motivating to know we had a coach who was leading the team and trusting us to go out and perform to his way of thinking and play in a very ambitious way. As a player, that’s what you want when you engage yourself with coaches and with people around the team.”

Trust matters. There’s a clear difference between the sides that have it and those that don’t and it can be seen in the passes they play, the decisions they make and the runs they’re willing to commit to. Southampton remain fragile in many ways, but in terms of feeling free to be expressive, that part of their head coach’s message has taken seed.

Like so many of his peers, Hasenhuttl is saluted for ideology. These coaches are quasi-religious figures now, more important for what they stand for than who they are. With that comes the expectation of fundamentalism, a rigid loyalty to system and identity, and purity which players are not allowed to pollute. As the last year at Southampton shows, though, that’s not really accurate in this case. It was his predecessors’ football which forbade the team from straying. It was their tactics which wreaked of paranoia and which turned St Mary’s into the most anxious ground in the country.

The problem for Hasenhuttl is that he didn’t inherit a team with just a single flaw. Southampton have defensive problems and, at times, the twin demands placed on their midfielders can leave the side horribly exposed to the counter-attack. But he seems to have addressed the most fundamental issue: the problem with the pacing. The snail-paced football has gone and attacking moves now develop in metres rather than inches.

It’s not a final destination, but it is a start. Southampton are willing to play again and given how mired in their own psychoses they’d became, perhaps that amounts to a victory which is currently more significant than their mixed results.

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.