It has been a long road to the Premier League for Ralph Hasenhuttl. After starting his managerial career as youth coach at SpVgg Unterhaching, he rose through the ranks in Germany – coaching in all three professional leagues – before landing a dream move to Southampton.
The Austrian first caught the eye as he turned around the fortunes of Ingolstadt 04, taking them from the bottom of Bundesliga 2 into Germany’s top flight for the first time in their history.
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His next challenge was leading newly-promoted RB Leipzig to a second-place finish in their maiden Bundesliga season, securing them a place in the Champions League. They finished third in a group that included Monaco, Besiktas and Porto, dropping into the Europa League where they were beaten in the quarter-finals by Marseille.
These are just a few of the successes Hasenhuttl has had as a manager and he is now looking for something similar at Southampton, where he is using all of his past experience to succeed in the Premier League.
Sitting in the comfort of Southampton’s modern training ground on the outskirts of the city, a relaxed Hasenhuttl tells Sky Sports: “Every step I’ve taken so far was important for my development as a coach and a manager because I think if you learn your job from the very fundamentals, it helps you massively when you are at the highest level because every mistake you make there can make a big impact in your performance.
“I’m very thankful that I got the chance to go through all my steps, from the youth up to the third, second and then first league in Germany and now the Premier League. If you want to have development as a manager then it’s the best path I think.
“As a manager, the two promotions were very important, the first with Aalen (from Bundesliga 3 into Bundesliga 2) and the second with Ingolstadt into the Bundesliga, that was maybe the biggest success.
“Also reaching the Champions League in the first season at Leipzig, that was a very big step in my career, but being a manager in the Premier League is the best you can reach. Because it was the next step, I really wanted to go.”
When Hasenhuttl was offered the opportunity to come to the Premier League with Southampton in December 2018, he was realising a long-held dream.
“It is the best league in the world, you have Champions League games 12 times throughout the season if you like, because we play six teams who are in Europe so it is something of a dream. I wanted to come here as a player but I wasn’t good enough, I think, but to do it as a manager is even more unbelievable for me and I’m very happy that I’ve got the chance to show up here.”
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Southampton were languishing in 18th when Hasenhuttl arrived last season, facing a drop back into the Sky Bet Championship after six years, with the likes of Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes struggling to make an impact. But it was a situation that Hasenhuttl was well-equipped to deal with, and choosing another team in a tough situation was not exactly a coincidence.
“It seems like it is something I really like because you can have a big impact in such a club,” he explains. “You’re bringing your philosophy, your work ethic and your mentality, then you can have an immediate output. What I see now is we are believing we are going to win and I really like to go this way.
“I also managed in the Champions League and it’s maybe a different goal you have there, you have to win every game and here, you do want to win every game, but we know it will not happen because we are not one of the big clubs in England. We will make developing steps, small ones but do so continuously.”
‘The Alpine Klopp’
It is hard to talk about Hasenhuttl as a manager without making the connections to Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. The two have similar styles of play, having studied the same course for their coaching badges, and are the same age – 52.
But what does Hasenhuttl believe his football philosophy consists of?
“I think it’s a very active one, a very intense one and a game that fits perfectly in the Premier League,” he reflects. “We are very front-foot defending, aggressive on the jump, we try to take early, win balls early, we don’t stay long in possession, we try to play deep and score.
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“We have to be organised in the Premier League because the teams are so strong here and they will kill you if you’re not organised, which is why we work a lot in being the right shape and knowing when we have to attack.
“I think it is something we have really developed so far and we haven’t had too many clean sheets but if we do, it is very good defensive work by the players.
“I think it’s very good to see when we play, if you want a good sign from my point of view, it’s every time my teams are playing football, you can immediately see that it is a team from me and this is what I want to show.”
Ten months into his time at Southampton, and Hasenhuttl is still learning about the intricacies of the Premier League, but he has already changed a lot at the club.
“One thing I’ve learnt is the different styles of football from different managers from all over the world,” he said. “It’s like a spot here where everything comes together at the highest level, so if you want to perform here you have to be prepared for every shape, every style of football and this is very interesting to me.
“I like to push every button that is necessary to push. We’ve changed our behaviour together, our shape, the way of playing football. We changed the intensity of the training session and in the squad, we changed it a little bit.
“We brought some new players in with a good mentality and, meanwhile, we have a good character in the team and we are in a good way. It is tough in the Premier League and I want to be successful. You have to take points consistently and you constantly have opponents where it is tough to take points.”
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Southampton have taken seven points from their seven Premier League games so far and welcome Chelsea on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, in search of their first win at St Mary’s since the middle of April.
“I think we had a very tough schedule in the beginning against Liverpool and Man Utd at home with one point,” Hasenhuttl explained. “We could have had more but against Liverpool, we had a big chance to take a point but we didn’t. The home game against Bournemouth was maybe the easiest one out of our first four home games but you see that it is not easy to win a game at home.
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“It would help us if we scored a little bit earlier, that’s what we want to do but, even then, you must be very good and committed for 90 minutes and we know that we can win games at home.
“Frank Lampard is doing a very good job. It’s not too easy to go to Chelsea with all of the pressure you have to form a new, young team with inexperienced players but he has a lot of quality in his team. They’ve shown they can perform very well.
“I’m expecting an intense game, an open game and a game with a lot of good chances for both sides. I think both teams are playing quickly forward and I think it will be very interesting. If you want to win a game against the big top six, you must have a fantastic performance and it’s time to show that at home.”
2:05 Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl expects an ‘intense’ and ‘wild’ game against in-form Chelsea in the Premier League on Sunday
So what is next in Hasenhuttl’s master plan for Southampton and what should they be aiming for under his tutelage?
“Our first goal is not to be in the relegation zone, to come out of there and try to make the next step of development,” the Austrian concluded.
“We know the options with the possibilities we have financially are not the highest ones so we have to make small steps because we have to develop players to get better. For this, we need time and I think we’ve showed that we have the players to make the step in the right direction in the Premier League and we will get better and better.