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Cloud Nine to 9-0 2.0 – Where do Southampton go from here?

A mere eighteen months after that harrowing Friday night against Leicester City, unfathomably, lightning struck twice, the vaunted 9-0 score line rearing its ugly head again.

In a season in which Southampton historically reached the summit of the Premier League for the first time in club history, improbably, they have contrived to succumb to yet another immeasurably humiliating defeat.

Wounds had yet to heal after The Foxes inflicted such misery upon Hassenhuttl’s charges, The Austrian, now the lone Premier League manager to have endured multiple 9-0 maulings – the result has only been recorded on three occasions throughout the competition’s existence.

The task at Old Trafford was always going to be a steep one, United blessed with a plethora of attacking prowess and mounting an unlikely title charge, whilst their counterparts, headed into the fixture ravaged by injuries.

The disparity in depth was obvious with a fleeting glance at the benches of each side. Whilst United were able to call upon seasoned veterans including Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial, the visitor’s substitutes were predominantly youth squad members, boasting little or no first team experience.

Obviously the implosion was exacerbated following Alex Jankewitz’s dismissal within the contest’s opening ninety seconds. The highly rated 19-year-old, making his senior bow, reportedly requested a transfer during the previous week, frustrated by a lack of playing time. 

The Austrian’s horrific challenge on Scott McTominay, and subsequent swift departure, is unlikely to improve his standing amongst The Saints faithful.

Credit where credit’s due, Solsjkaer’s outfit were relentless, albeit, aided by further contentious VAR decisions; the implementation of which continues to bring our beloved game into disrepute.

One is well within their right to contemplate what looms next for a side who harboured seriously lofty ambitions after a resounding start to the campaign. At the time of the original 9-0 demolition, Saints were staring perilously at the prospect of relegation, holding seemingly little hope of avoiding the drop. 

However, the fixture served as a wake-up call and the club responded admirably, staving off demotion and finishing respectably in eleventh place.

Southampton’s return to prominence in 2012, after several years in the wilderness coincided with consecutive excellent managerial appointments, securing the services of two of the more progressive minds across world football, in Mauricio Pochettino and subsequently, Ronald Koeman.

It is all too easy to forget that this period was followed by a slew of uninspiring recruits. With all due respect, Messrs Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes repeatedly persisted with turgid, deplorably dull brands of football; resulting in a side that had so recently secured European football, obliviously sleepwalking into a constant struggle to retain their Premier League status.

Even the most ardent Southampton fan will have no qualms in admitting that they are unlikely to ever be considered one of English football’s more fashionable clubs. The deflating factor is, in what can be considered as unpredictable a season as any in recent memory, similarly undesired sides, including West Ham and Leicester City, are punching above their weight – admirably attempting to disrupt the usual quadropoly that generally features at the table’s upper reaches.

Had Saints been backed by a more ambitious owner, someone willing to invest and capitalise on Hassenhuttl’s considerable coaching acumen, I can foresee no reason why the club could not have continued their initial momentum into the latter months of the campaign. Inevitably, in what is an overly congested season due to its late commencement, injuries have taken their toll and supporters have been left with a gut-wrenchingly depressing sensation of what might have been.

Admittedly, due to the financial impact on the club due to COVID-19, transfer activity, as it has been for copious amounts of teams, was subdued. However, as has been documented, restricted to the strict, sell-to-buy business model, rigidly imposed by owner Gao Jisheng, makes it almost impossible to reach the next level in today’s cash dominated Premier League. 

A mix of injuries, suspension and loan departures have left the squad bereft of options at fullback, leading to a last gasp foray into the transfer market – attempts to land a loanee, ultimately in vain. For me, this episode served as a damning indictment of the club’s current mantra.

Hassenhuttl cut a severely forlorn figure upon the touchline at Old Trafford, appearing completely helpless, incapable of either preventing, or at the very least, limiting the impending destruction of his side – a team that so impressively put champions Liverpool to the sword at the turn of the year. Given the constrained resources, I can only empathise with him.

Luring the previously labelled “Alpine Klopp” (a term coined due to his similar insistence upon a pressing based approach) to the South Coast was somewhat of a coup for Southampton. His managerial CV speaks for itself, steering unheralded Ingolstadt to the Bundesliga for the first time in its existence.

Another string to his bow, Hassenhuttl also masterminded a second-place finish at RB Leipzig, securing Champions League qualification in the process, in what was “Die Rotten Bullen’s” maiden campaign in Germany’s top-flight.

With key players including Jannik Vestergaard, Kyle Walker-Peters and Oriol Romeu continuing to be sidelined through injury, the fall from grace may continue for the foreseeable future.

That being said, the club has rebounded from adversity before and still sits in a relatively healthy position, owing to its blistering performances delivered during the season’s early months.

What Hassenhuttl has achieved with this squad has been nothing short of miraculous, though one senses that to reach its full potential, a change in ownership is essential. Rumours have circulated, although nothing concrete, the sale process likely hampered due to the current climate.

I only hope that the stubbornness of the current hierarchy does not result in Ralph’s eventual departure. Acquiring a tactician of his calibre was an unexpectedly shrewd move, breathing fresh life into a supporter base that had grown increasingly disillusioned. One fears the feat may not repeat itself overly readily – should he move onto greener pastures; I anticipate the old adage “you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone” will prove particularly apt.

Dan Jarvis – Saintsworld

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