Had the Premier League season gone on for a few more weeks, Southampton could have been in real danger.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side finished five points clear of the relegation zone but ended the campaign on a four-game losing streak. The Saints won only one of their final 12 matches, collecting just five points from the last 36 on offer. After 38 rounds of fixtures, only Norwich City, Watford and Leeds United had conceded more goals than Southampton.
When the Saints beat Norwich 2-0 at the end of March, they were ninth in the table. A top-half finish was a distinct possibility. European qualification was not out of the question: that victory moved them to within five points of Wolverhampton Wanderers in seventh spot.
The subsequent collapse has already had consequences. Assistant coaches Kelvin Davis, Dave Watson and Craig Fleming have been dismissed in what appears to be a shake-up of the backroom staff. The implication is that Hasenhuttl’s job is not under immediate threat, despite calls from some supporters for the Austrian to move on. A poor start to next season would leave the former RB Leipzig manager under huge pressure.
Throughout Hasenhuttl’s tenure, Southampton have had their fair share of ups and downs. There have been two 9-0 losses, to Leicester City and Manchester United. That first thrashing came amid a run of one point from 27. The second was part of a six-game losing streak.
Southampton have had plenty of memorable wins under Hasenhuttl too. In his first season they beat Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. In 2020/21 they overcame Liverpool. Even last term, which was largely disappointing, Southampton got the better of Tottenham and Arsenal.
A few years ago, the Saints were used to competing for the European spots. They finished in the top half of the table for four seasons on the bounce, even as managers came and went. Mauricio Pochettino, Ronald Koeman and Claude Puel each guided Southampton to eighth or above.
After difficult spells under Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes, Hasenhuttl was appointed with a view to returning Southampton to the top 10. He has not yet managed to do so, but in the Austrian’s defence he has not had the same tools as some of his predecessors.
Each summer Southampton have lost key players: from Dusan Tadic, Cedric Soares and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to Danny Ings and Jannik Vestergaard. They have picked up some gems themselves, including Tino Livramento and Mohammed Salisu, but being forced to sell some of your main stars year after year eventually takes its toll. There are fears going into the summer that James Ward-Prowse could be the next man through the St Mary’s exit door.
Hasenhuttl admitted in December that he has had to change his plans for the club during his tenure.
“It’s a survival fight every day, every week, with the limits we have with a club. But we’ve made some good progress. Even if you sell players for a lot of money we are trying to rebuild the team, this is the way we have to go.
“This was a change in my mind also, it took a little bit to understand this, to be honest. When we were coming here we had targets of bringing the club as high in the table as possible, maybe reaching European places.
“But then you see how strong the league is. You see the potential, and there’s another team coming now in Newcastle with absolutely more financial potential than we have. “But the job is not affected by this hard work, it’s still fantastic. I enjoy my job every day, and it’s fantastic to work at this club with my staff and this team.”
Hasenhuttl had previously told the Southampton hierarchy that he was considering retiring when his contract on the south coast expires in 2024. Unless the Saints start next season well, Hasenhuttl is unlikely to last that long.