JACK Stephens has impressed Ralph Hasenhuttl with the aggression and leadership qualities he has shown in Saints’ back four. 

As well as now having the best Premier League record bar every team but Liverpool since the November ‘reset’, Saints also have the third-best defence over the last ten games.

Only Liverpool (five) and Crystal Palace (eight) have conceded fewer than the ten goals Saints have let in since Hasenhuttl jettisoned his back three after the international break.

Stephens’ own development has been a big factor in that improvement.

“He has surprised me with his duels in the defence,” said Hasenhuttl. 

“I asked him to be more aggressive and he did well against very good strikers and is good with the ball, I know. He also has good management now, he doesn’t take too much risk. This is a good balance at the moment in all his behaviours. 

“He is a leader in the back four, absolutely. He took the chance with both hands.”

Stephens’ improvement reflects that of the team over the last eight weeks. 

Like all good sides, Saints’ rise has been as much about their solidity at the back as the prolific goalscoring of Danny Ings. The high-tempo press set by Ings ensures they defend from the front and, admittedly, they are well protected by James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

But the consistent excellence of Cedric Soares, Stephens, Jan Bednarek and Ryan Bertrand and Alex McCarthy is Saints’ most settled back five since the same full-backs flanked Virgil Van Dijk and Jose Fonte under Ronald Koeman four years ago.

Like Van Dijk and Fonte and even Michael Svensson and Claus Lundekvam during the early noughties, the different qualities of Stephens and Bednarek ensure they dovetail to excellent effect.

At 6ft, Stephens is relatively short for a Premier League centre-half, but has impressed against some powerful centre-forwards in helping Saints to two clean sheets from their last four matches.

That is as many as they had from their first 18 matches, when their defensive record was the worst in the Premier League.

Stephens was much-maligned back then and was understandably downcast as recently as last month, when Michail Antonio’s power and strength was the difference between the sides in West Ham’s 1-0 win at St Mary’s.

But to be so integral to a side that has only conceded two goals in its last four games against sides including Tammy Abraham, Harry Kane (albeit for 75 minutes) and Jamie Vardy shows haw far he has come. 

He is now maturing into the player Saints hoped he would be when they signed him from Plymouth Argyle, initially for £150,000, as a 16 year-old a decade ago. 

What an astute piece of business that is proving to be.

As Hasenhuttl said last week: “It was not an easy time for him at the beginning of the season but he was on the train when the train was speeding up and this is not bad for him.”

It’s proving to be an exhilarating ride.