Saints last recorded victory in Huddersfield 47 years ago, admittedly, the teams haven’t met one another on a regular basis throughout the years since but still, it’s a record that didn’t read particularly promisingly for those of a Saints persuasion. My first visit to the Galpharm Stadium (as it was back then, now the John Smith’s) came in 2011, a 2-0 reverse which made for a depressingly long journey back down the motorway. I seem to recall the man, the myth, the legend, Brazilian Cult Hero Guly spurning multiple chances. In addition, the home supporters seemed hellbent on abusing Rickie Lambert, targeting his weight, although if memory serves correctly, his perceived ‘extra timber’ failed to impact his deadly finishing, which fuelled consecutive promotions. More recently, I returned last August for a turgid 0-0 affair during Pellegrino’s underwhelming spell in the hot seat. The visitors could have actually stolen maximum points through Ryan Bertrand as the encounter drew to a close but Huddersfield would have felt hard done by having dominated for the most part in front of a raucous atmosphere in Yorkshire, with Terriers backers fully embracing Town’s first season in the Premier League.
This season’s instalment had very different permutations, with both sides languishing at the wrong end of the table. Credit where credit’s due, David Wagner did a fantastic job in securing a second season of top flight football. However, despite heartening performances, you feel the team will be in for a mighty challenge if they are to avoid the drop this time around, goals being all too infrequent. On the flip side, visitors Saints seem to be turning a corner, with the arrival of Hasenhüttl injecting belief into every facet of the club. The Austrian has written to season ticket holders, outlining his personal vision, been a constant presence at youth team matches and had the first team training for exhaustively longer hours, his determination, seemingly second to none. With Huddersfield on the back of four consecutive losses and Saints having just chalked up a historic victory over Arsenal, confidence in a positive result was for all to see.
As the old adage goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and this is precisely the approach Hasenhüttl employed, opting for an unchanged starting lineup following on from the gunning down of the Gunners. The Southampton Way, renowned for blooding youth has been somewhat lost in recent seasons but it appears as though Ralph is keen on reintroducing. Valery and Obafemi have featured prominently under his stewardship so far and teenage Right Back, Kanye Ramsay made the bench for the first time.
Somewhat similar to last season’s game at Huddersfield, the home side bossed possession right out of the traps, though the impressive ball retention lead to little substance in the final third. Saints, thoroughly well organised, falling wonderfully back into their shape in instances when possession was lost, waited patiently before striking first in the fifteenth minute. Captain fantastic Hojbjerg delivered a perfectly weighted pass that split through the heart of the Terriers defence and found it’s way to Redmond, who buried nonchalantly into the top corner for his first goal of the season.
Huddersfield’s most likely route back into the game seemed via set pieces but half chances were spurned and Saints capitalised when Ings danced into the box, before Jorgensen clumsily dangled a leg, bringing the frontman to the floor in the process. Ings confidently put the keeper the wrong way, rolling the ball into a corner before embracing the abuse directed at him by home supporters, in the midst of being congratulated by teammates.
With the lead looking comprehensive, Saints started to dictate as the second half got underway but the notion of a routine climax to the fixture was threatened in an instant. Defender Billing unleashed a shot from 30 yards, the trajectory of which deceiving McCarthy and finding the back of the net. Saints number one will have been disappointed, with the strike relatively central but it could be argued that Bednarek could have done more and in addition, possibly blocked the keeper’s view. With the home supporters buoyed by a goal which reduced the arrears, Hassenhüttl reacted in a relentless manner, opting to bring on an attacker in youngster Obafemi for the departing Ings. In truth, a hat-trick could have been notched up during the Irishman’s cameo but following previous miscues, most notably at Leicester in the Carabao Cup, the forward shower tremendous resolve to bury from close range having been teed up by Redmond’s wizardly wing play.
Huddersfield threw caution to the wind in the final moments but Saints stood firm and in fact, could have increased the lead, Obafemi’s pace troubling the Terriers rearguard on the counter and it was his run and shot that was ultimately nullified by goalkeeper Lossl. Still, having just become the Saints youngest ever Premier League scorer, in a year in which he has also represented his country for the first time, Obafemi can be proud of his rise and most importantly, his contribution sealed a fantastic victory in what was a second away win of the season. The only blemish being that the otherwise impressive Hojbjerg picked up a silly booking during the closing stages, meaning the imposing of a ban and the team having to fare without his leadership in the next match. Pierre has ability in abundance no doubt, running things in the squad’s engine room but you feel that his recklessness needs to be toned down and a certain element of composure introduced in order to avoid such happenings going forward.
Having clocked up hugely encouraging back to back wins, you couldn’t help but sense a genuine opportunity to register nine points on the trot when West Ham made the trip South, mounting a serious charge up the table in the process and away from the dreaded relegation zone. Now the optimism may have been fuelled by the demolition of a Big Mac en route, always guaranteed to lift spirits but the notion was only strengthened upon parking up as standard, at Southampton Central. Having consulted Twitter to discover the line ups, the wave of positivity rolled on as it became apparent that The Hammers were without a number of key players, in particular the controversial but highly effective Marko Arnautovic.
The game itself was originally scheduled for Boxing Day but due to Sky’s televising of copious amounts of matches over the festive period, ours was naturally the only fixture shifted to the Thursday. This decision caused a lot of anger and understandably so, considering working commitments of many supporters , however, I cannot help but find evening kick offs under the super bright, LED lights at St. Mary’s somewhat magical.
West Ham, coming off the back off a 2-0 reverse at home to Watford, were perceivable there for the taking. However, this was perhaps a somewhat naive mindset considering they had won four of five under the direction of experienced Argentinian manager Manuel Pellegrini. In addition, over £100 million was spent during the summer transfer window, including the club’s record signing Felipe Anderson, setting the East Londoners back a cool £40 million as he traded Lazio, Italy for our capital. Ultimately, the winger stole the show in what proved to be a game too far for Hasenhüttl‘s charges, Anderson proving to be worth every last penny of the sizeable fee as Saints showed signs of fatigue, likely brought about by the implementation of Ralph’s favoured pressing system.
With regards to Anderson’s signing, eyes were raised initially but in fairness to West Ham, in this day and age, he appears to be a bargain and no doubt the figure will be recouped and then some when he one day moves onto greener pastures. If anything, I’m somewhat envious. Saints found gemstones of their own in recent years, Pelle, Mane and Tadic all spring to mind. However, with the departure of Paul Mitchell, former Head of Scouting, our recruitment policy seems to be sputtering and in the process, the infamous ‘black box’ somewhat malfunctioning. Expensive foreign imports such as Boufal, Carrillo, Clasie and Elyounoussi all struggling in red and white and the former, loaned out after disappointing spells at St. Mary’s. When you factor in others such as Hoedt and Clasie to a lesser extent, you realise that the substantial transfer fees accrued for exports such as Van Dijk and Mane have been wasted and in order for us to progress, recruitment must improve drastically.
The home side, buoyed by the recent points haul, started the game brightly, Danny Ings going close having craftily slid through the legs of Ogbonna, only for his effort to hit the side netting. West Ham answered, almost taking the lead through former Gunner Lucas Perez, picked out perfectly by Cresswell, only for the effort to be skewed wide. The visitors began to exert their authority, well organised and disciplined, 19 year old Declan Rice catching the eye in the middle, as the away faithful chanted his name, making it quite clear they wish for the club to offer a new contract to the talented youngster. Robert Snodgrass fired inches wide but the sides remained level going into the break.
When play resumed, Saints took an unlikely lead, a bizarre series of events lead to the only Saints goal I have never celebrated in over twenty years of attending matches. I, as many others amongst the St. Mary’s faithful thought play had been blown dead, as the ball fell to Redmond inches in front of the goal line. However, he was played onside by former Saint and scorer in 2010’s JPT Final success, Michail Antonio. The ball ended up in the back of the net following the ensuing goalmouth scramble and the ball appeared to be directed goal wards by Nathan’s arm but alas, a lead massively against the run of play and no complaints from any Saints fans.
Unfortunately though, the lead was a short one and the ever impressive Anderson soon levelled. McCarthy may have been somewhat disappointed considering he was beaten on his near post but in his defence, the shot was incredibly venomous and the back line should never have afforded a player of such quality so much room. Saints responded, no doubt eager to retaliate following the lapse in concentration but were made to pay by overcommitting and The Hammers picked the home side off, due in large part to an abundance of pace on the counter attack. Off the back of a Saints corner, West Ham launched a move forward of their own, lead by the pacy Antonio. A winger by trade but featuring at fullback, using his wide man know how played a cross field pass rendering the Saints rearguard utterly ineffective, as that man again, Anderson was picked out. Left one on one with McCarthy between the posts, the Brazilian made no mistake, smashing into the roof of the net with aplomb.
Saints, having thrown away a lead, now had a huge uphill task to face to get back into the game and Hasenhüttl turned to Shane Long. Unfortunately, his introduction had little impact and if anything, his usual pestering seemed somewhat lethargic and off the mark. This lead to Ralph calling the Irishman out in his post match press conference, lamenting the loss through injury of speedster Obafemi. Hasenhüttl took a similar stance in throwing goalkeeper McCarthy under the bus for his part played in West Ham’s equaliser, where his positioning was questioned in front of the national press. I understand that the new boss is likely using the criticism as a psychological tool to spark a reaction but I think he has to tread carefully with the way in which he treats senior pros, especially having only just arrived at the club.
Anderson, having already bagged two, almost turned provider for Perez but thankfully, Vestergaard intervened in the nick of time with a superb challenge. There were late chances for Lemina, who tested Fabianski having been slid through by Redmond and the introduction of Austin saw Saints revert to a flat back 4. Ultimately though, the Londoners proved too well organised and in all truth were deserved winners against a Saints side who lacked width and featured an attack which seemed cut off from the rest of the team.
The result served as somewhat of a bringing back to Earth after the recent up turn in events and although I feel that Hasenhüttl is the right man for the job, it will no doubt take time for him to stamp his mark on the team in what is a job of serious magnitude. Sunday brings the small matter of reigning Champions Manchester City coming to town for yet another televised fixture. The Citizens will no doubt be hurting having suffered shock back to back losses against Crystal Palace and Leicester, results offering Saints a glimmer of hope but of course, as November’s 6-1 reverse at the Etihad proved, the quality in their ranks will make the encounter yet another stern test of Ralph’s side’s credentials.
All the best for the new year!