England

Saints can dream of Europe once again after transformation under Hasenhüttl

 • by Will Evans
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After defeats to Burnley and Liverpool in the opening two weekends of the Premier League season, things are finally looking up for Southampton ahead of their south-coast derby with Bournemouth.

The Saints will go into that match full of confidence, after an impressive run of results that has seen them pick up seven points from their last three top-flight matches.

Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men are unbeaten in their previous four games if you factor in their Carabao Cup victory over Fulham, and drew praise from all quarters when they held Manchester United to a 1-1 draw at St Mary’s Stadium last month.

The ‘Alpine Klopp’ has been highly rated since leading RB Leipzig to second place in the Bundesliga and securing Champions League qualification in 2016/17, and his burgeoning reputation in England continues to grow with every passing week.

While the notion of reaching the Champions League with the Saints seems highly unlikely, Southampton fans will perhaps be starting to dream of a push for Europa League football in Hasenhüttl’s first full campaign at the helm.

The signs are certainly positive, not least because the Saints’ boss appears to have addressed the defensive issues that plagued his side last term – they conceded 65 times and ended 2018/19 with a -20 goal difference.

Only the staunchest of optimists would have predicted the defensive solidity that has yielded three clean sheets in Southampton’s last four matches on the opening day of the campaign, when the south coast side succumbed to a surprise 3-0 defeat to Burnley at Turf Moor.

Fortunately, the expected goals (xG) from that match hinted at the result being an anomaly rather than the capitulation the scoreline suggested – the Saints’ xG of 1.09 was actually higher than Burnley’s 0.91.

Those numbers were something of a premonition of what was to come. The Southampton defence has been breached 1.18 times per 90 minutes this season, a notable improvement on last season’s average of 1.71.

It’s more impressive when considered Southampton have faced traditional ‘top-six’ sides Liverpool and Manchester United in their opening run of games.

If the Saints’ newfound resilience at the back is a testament to Hasenhüttl’s organisation, their increased creativity upfront is an even more impressive reflection of his coaching abilities.

Southampton have created the third most chances of any team in England’s top flight at 2.6 per 90, significantly better than their record of just 1.26 per 90 last season.

Striker Ché Adams in action for Southampton against Sheffield United

What they haven’t done is take these. The Saints have missed 2.20 big chances per 90 this term, the most of any Premier League side this season. While a concern, Danny Ings and Che Adams do have the requisite quality to finish opportunities and just need a little more fortunate in front of goal.

Southampton’s chances of finding the net on a more frequent basis have been helped by the presence of new signing Moussa Djenepo, who has been a revelation since arriving at St Mary’s for around £15million from Standard Liège.

The 21-year-old winger, when fit, has attempted the second-most dribbles of any top-flight midfielder this season (8.71 per 90) and has completed more of them than all but one player in his position (5.81 per 90).

He currently ranks sixth for shots on target too (2.18 per 90), and that eye for goal has seen him score twice in just 134 minutes of Premier League football.

New signing Moussa Djenepo in action for Southampton

If Djenepo can avoid injury – he will miss the game against Bournemouth – and consistently perform at the same high level, Southampton will have the creative spark needed to propel themselves up the table.

The Saints face Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal in their next eight league matches but it’s the games against fellow Europa League hopefuls Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leicester City and Everton that could prove to be the real acid test.

If Southampton can consistently take points off their rivals in the middle of the pack, that dream of European football could become a reality come the end of the season.

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