RALPH Hasenhuttl raised eyebrows all-but ditching a football philosophy three full seasons in the making, with a surprising and significant switch of shape in pre-season – so it seemed.

The Austrian had, prior to last season, came under fire for a lack of flexibility and adaptability in the way he set his teams up to face certain opposition.

His German-inspired gegenpress 4-2-2-2 is effective when the press is working at its optimum but left Saints exposed when it was not, contributing to several hefty hammerings.

Early into last season, we began to see Hasenhuttl’s ideas differ – with notable and effective changes to 4-5-1 and five-at-the-back shapes in matches versus West Ham and Chelsea respectively.

“Every team has different strengths and that doesn’t mean that you now play with this shape all the time. It can be that it’s a tactically variable game,” Hasenhuttl said, almost 12 months ago.

Daily Echo: Ralph Hasenhuttl (Pic: Matt Temple)Ralph Hasenhuttl (Pic: Matt Temple)

It looked as though Hasenhuttl was testing something different again when they lined up for their first pre-season matches of the 2022-23 campaign. It quickly emerged this instead represents a dominant change in ideals.

All five matches featured a trio of centre-backs, supported by attacking wing-backs whom often take up the most advances position on the pitch, with a midfield or attacking three-two or two-three the only variation.

It is expected Saints will again line up at Tottenham Hotspur, on the opening day of the Premier League season, this way – but the 4-2-2-2 is so ingrained in the club, it is not going anywhere.

Speaking to B team head coach Dave Horseman on Tuesday, after he had lined up with the same 5-3-2 shape Hasenhuttl had explored this summer, in a friendly with AFC Totton, he revealed this was instead only a forced change to get players minutes.

Daily Echo: Saints B head coach Dave Horseman (Pic: Ricky Hart)Saints B head coach Dave Horseman (Pic: Ricky Hart)

The original playbook, based around the high-press 4-2-2-2, passed down to the under-16s and under-15s this season following its success at under-18s last campaign, is still in full operation.

“Yeah this is definitely right and it should always be the way we want to go, it does not mean we step away from this way of football,” Hasenhuttl explained to the Daily Echo.

“It is a little bit in our DNA now as a club. We were working very hard to implement this and you could see the benefit of the youth, the under-18s were playing with it and were very successful.

“We are very proud of what we are doing in this part but it does not mean that, in the first-team, we are only playing with one dimension and one shape. It is not possible.”

While it is strange to not even change to the original shape for one minute of pre-season, it could be the case that Hasenhuttl believes all the automatisms are already in place, despite six new signings.

Daily Echo: Saints will wear their third kit at Spurs (Pic: SFC)Saints will wear their third kit at Spurs (Pic: SFC)

Hasenhuttl has also been strong-armed into his decisions by squad availability, with only Kyle Walker-Peters and Thierry Small - now on loan in League One - as fit, recognised full-backs. 

Saints could line up in the old familiar 4-2-2-2 when Leeds United visit St Mary’s in the second Premier League match, on Saturday, August 13 – a match they are expected to win.

“It is always a scanning of what opportunities you have in the team, the way we wanted to defend deeper, and the advantages you do or do not have,” Hasenhuttl added.

“When you defend deeper, yes this can be a little bit easier with a back-five, when you want to press high it is not the perfect chance to do this.

“Especially in the home games you want to be active, this is our DNA. We want to be on the front foot, holding the opponents far away from our goal. This is a little bit harder with this shape.”

Asked if the players Saints had signed or had tried to sign this summer were targeted with this flexibility in mind, Hasenhuttl continued: “It is never a disadvantage if you can play in different positions as a player.

Daily Echo: Versatile Joe Aribo (Pic: Matt Temple)Versatile Joe Aribo (Pic: Matt Temple)

“It always helps to be available for your manager, but we have definitely in the pre-season looked at what we want to play and what strikers, what players we need there.”

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