This is not the start to the season Ralph Hassenhuttl was expecting, this is not the start to the season Southampton fans expected.
Positivity can be contagious, especially when a character like Hassenhuttl takes over at a club, his energy, his passion and his overall demeanour bring optimism to a club. Southampton fans have been through the ringer in recent years when it comes to managerial appointments.
Puel uninspiring and bland, the vanilla ice cream of managers. Whilst Mauricio Pellegrino came in with all the right talk in his opening interview but failed to live up to those words, his ineptitude glaring as he goes down as one of the worst appointments in a generation. Mark Hughes kept the club up, and deserved some credit for that, but he had a lot of help from Swansea.
So when Ralph came in and galvanised the squad
like he had, fans were expecting a summer where he would put his stamp on the
squad and start the new season a different beast. The defence was always an
issue, the personnel is void of confidence, void of leadership.
Defenders have little room for mistake in any team in the world, when mistakes are made by the backline they are usually punished. Relationships are tarnished in seconds, and once that trust between the player and fans has gone, it is a long journey to repair it. Wesley Hoedt and Jack Stephens in particular are experiencing that exact sentiment.
Preseason was successful by all accounts, unbeaten against a variety of opponents from Preston North End to FC Koln. Despite the weak opposition fans were excited, Che Adams was finding the net and the defence seemed less porous as before. But they were not Premier League opposition, and it was not a competitive game.
So the curtain raiser on Southampton’s season came to the fore, a trip to Turf Moor and a second successive opening day against Sean Dyche’s Burnley side. Perhaps it was the anticipation of Premier League football combined with a fresh start under Hassenhuttl which had heads in the clouds wearing red and white shirts (those of previous seasons too, thanks to a sponsor issue).
But for Southampton fans, it was like buying the new FIFA video game. It may have had a slight facelift, but the broken mechanics remain. Sometimes, Southampton defended like there was some form of glitch in the system.
Burnleys opening goal was exactly that, Erik Pieters launched a long ball over the top and Jannik Vestegaard floundered in the air, completely misjudging the flight of the ball with his near 2m frame. Allowing Southampton and Premier League clubs nemesis Ashley Barnes to slam the ball through Angus Gunn and give them the lead.
A goal that you will see Barnes and Burnley score on multiple occasions this season, against better sides than Southampton. But one that took all that optimism, intrigue and positivity in Saints fans scrunched it into a paper ball and threw it into the blustery winds of Turf Moor.
Ralph did mention the wind as to why the second half was so difficult, almost keeping true to his media nickname of the Klopp of the Alps. But those excuses are not something he should be using, accepting responsibility and demanding change, creating change, that’s what fans want.
But it was the collapse that followed that really sucked the life out of the fans and left them with that empty feeling in the stomach. This has happened before, on multiple occasions. Ashley Barnes lost his marker to smash in a second before Gudmundsson added the third and final blow.
The Twitter hashtag went into a perhaps premature meltdown, but very few do meltdowns and overreactions as well as Southampton fans.
As the transfer window approached it’s close, fans were somewhat frustrated at the lack of reinforcements in the defensive area, the return of Hoedt from his bleak loan spell at Celta Vigo understandably not enough to convince fans Southampton would be dealing out clean sheets on a regular basis.
But the very late signing of Kevin Danso had many scratching their head. A 20 year old defender who prior to that tweet by Lars Pollman nobody had heard of.
90 minutes into the season and the pressure is on him from those typing on their iPhone to walk into the team and revolutionise this defence. Not the ideal environment for a young defender, but one he may be able to step up to.
There is an immense amount of improvement to be made in this squad, the players are quite clearly capable of better. But one win in 15 last season is the marker, improvement is all that is required from last season.
You can’t blame fans for being optimistic, equally you can’t blame those who are constantly negative about the club, about the squad. The proof is in the pudding over the last few seasons.
But better sides than Southampton will lose at Burnley. There are some who called Burnley relegation fodder, but they are far from that. An established, Premier League side who may not be the prettiest team in league, but are as effective and efficient as most. Last seasons flirtation with relegation seemed to come from an awful first half of the season which can be put down to the early start with Europa League football.
The result was awful, the performance was worse. The aggregate rating for the Southampton players can be counted on the two hands you possess. But one loss with 37 left to play does not condemn a club to relegation.
Things don’t get easier with Liverpool up next, but a performance that shows grit, determination and fight may well bring an ounce of positivity back into the fanbase and maybe the Twitter timelines will be less frustrating to read. fff