After his great success in the Bundesliga coaching RB Leipzig, achieving promotion and finishing 2nd behind Bayern Munich the next year, Ralph Hasenhüttl arrived to the Premier League to save Southampton from relegation. He started with The Saints in December 2018, achieving this objective and finishing five points clear in 16th position.
The Austrian is identified with Jürgen Klopp’s style – high pressing and fast transitioning being the essence of his philosophy and the reason why he is identified with Liverpool’s coach. This style of playing saved The Saints form relegation, but this year it fell below expectations as they currently sit in 14th place.
In this tactical analysis of the coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, we will do a deep analysis of his tactics and his 4-4-2 formation used during this season at Southampton and show the weaknesses of his high pressing style.
High pressing is the essence of the Austrian coach’s strategy – a high tempo pressing throughout the game which creates a demanding job for rivals to play from the back. This is shown in their stats as they are the highest pressing team in the league according to their PPDA stats.
The two forwards are the first line of pressing, in conjunction with the second line of two wide-midfielders and one of the central-midfielders. In the following picture, we can see both strikers, in this case, Danny Ings and Shane Long, pressing the back three, shaping the press to force them to go wide and the second line of midfielders are ready to press high as well.
This pressing is not only high from goal kicks but also when the ball is played back to the opponent’s defence – that’s the trigger for the forwards and midfielders to man-mark, not allowing their rivals to re-start
In the next picture, we can see once the ball is played back to re-start the build-up, the front two plus the midfielders in charge of the pressing rush into their rivals, forcing mistakes.
The pressing becomes more effective when opponents look to play wide to escape from this vertical pressing. When the ball is played wide, the team creates an overload on the defence, using the full-back pressing the wing-backs of the opposite team and shifting the rest of the pressing to this flank.
In the next two pictures, we can see how The Saints locked the rivals in the wide-area, winning the ball or forcing errors. In the first one, Southampton full-back Kyle Walker-Peters joins the pressing creating a 5 v 4.
In the second picture, Ryan Bertrand the left full-back in charge of the pressing on the left flank, creates a 4 v 2. Once the ball is played wide, there is no more man-marking and it turns into a zonal pressing in which all the players close to the action join the pressing, creating a defensive overload high up the pitch.
Weaknesses on Saint’s High pressing
This high pressing is effective to win the ball back high up the pitch and at the same time it makes the rivals uncomfortable in their half. But this way of pressing has shown some weaknesses in Hasenhüttl’s strategy and that is the unbalance generated in the defensive lines of The Saints.
In the next picture, we can see how Liverpool play with a bank of four against the back-three. Liverpool ended up scoring four goals that game, two while using long balls to counter-attack that pressing.
Also, to follow Hasenhüttl’s high pressing strategy, the back-line have to be fast, especially the centre-backs. The back-line has to be positioned high on the field, allowing at the same time runs in behind. So they have to be fast to avoid these runs. This is not the case of the centre-backs used by Hasenhüttl: Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek, both of whom are quite slow and easily overrun.
In the next picture, we can see Bednarek is taken out of the defensive shape, leaving a huge poceket of space to be exploited, and with Stephens not being able to close it down, they concede a goal. If the ball is taken out from the high pressing zone, it can be easily played into that big gap.
A second attribute that this style of defending requires from the back-four is to play comfortably n 1 v 1 situations, releasing the other players to press higher. But we see that Saints’ centre-backs are not specialists in these scenarios, and this creates problems when rivals play through balls in the central areas. The next picture is a goal conceded to Burnley after a ball is placed into the striker who outplayed Bednarek in a 1 v 1.
Build up and progress to the final third
Even though Hasenhuttl’s tactics are recognized by the high pressing and the fast transitions, offensively there are some interesting things to highlight. He uses some tactics to form his other preferred formation – the 4-2-2-2 with wide midfielders being tucked in.
Saints build up from the back with a line of three, using the two centre-backs and one of the centre-midfielders, while the other defensive midfielder helps the build-up in front of the back-three created. In the next picture, we can see Pierre-Emile Højbjerg dropping on the left to create a back three with both full-backs positioned higher and the other centre-mid dropping deep to help in the middle pocket.
In the next picture, we can see when building from the right it is James Ward-Prowse who is the one in charge of dropping deep on the side of the centre-backs. This tactic of using one of the centre-mids with the back-three has some advantages.
Firstly, when using any of the centre-mid to play from the back, the progression is better due to individual skills, assuming the midfielders are better on the ball than the defenders. Secondly, it allows the full-backs to position themselves in the wide lanes, opening spaces in the middle, as we can see in the next picture with Bertrand positioned behind the midfield line.
The effectiveness of this offensive style comes with the positioning of the wing-backs and the wide-midfielders, replicating the offensive formation of the 4-2-2-2 Hasenhuttl used at RB Leipzig. With the width created by the full-back and with both striker stretching the opposition defence, there is a huge space created for both wide-midfielders to tuck in and find pockets to receive the ball behind the midfield line.
In the following picture, we can see both Nathan Redmond and Sofiane Boufal positioned in the advanced areas between the defensive and midfield line with time and space to turn and face forward.
After the ball is in the middle third, strikers run in behind the defence, exploiting their virtue of good timing, not falling offside and breaking the defensive line. Here we can see after the ball is played wide behind Tottenham midfielders, Stuart Armstrong has an option to exploit the wide lane with Boufal or the right half-space by finding Long beind the defensive line.
The offensive transitions are related to the high pressing and are the other part of Hasenhüttl’s style that’s shared with Klopp’s philosophy. Hasenhüttl’s strategy in offensive transitions is supported by the overload he used when pressing. As the Saints always press in wide areas with a number superiority, if the ball is won it can be progressed up the pitch into an overload situation.
In the next picture, we can see The Saints winning the ball after pressing with five against three, and create an overload scenario for fast transitions.
Here we can see clearly how the transition into offensive positions is also fast even though the ball is recovered in their own half. Long is running behind the defensive line after the ball was recovered, and Ings is sprinting to get higher up the pitch and create the counter-attack.
High pressing is also used in defensive transitions – after losing the ball in the final third we can see Armostong sprinting and Ings forcing it wide. They finally recover possession in a dangerous zone.
Even though Hasenhüttl’s philosophy impacted the Premier League last season, clearing Southampton from relegation, it was not as effective this campaign. We have seen that there is an issue with the centre-backs that increases the defensive weaknesses in the aggressive pressing style used.
At the same time, even Klopp took some years to adapt his philosophy and famous “Gegenpressing” to the Premier League. So, Hasenhüttl should adapt his high pressing and fast transitioning style to the league to reduce the goals conceded. After all, even Liverpool don’t press all the time.