Manuel Veth –
Is this going to be a happy end after all? Ralph Hasenhüttl fired from RB Leipzig will is on the verge of joining English Premier League side FC Southampton. It would be a somewhat satisfying conclusion of what has not always been an easy year for a coach, who was once considered one of the brightest coaching talents in German football.
But let us start at the beginning although Austrian Ralph Hasenhüttl is very much a product of German football.
Ralph Hasenhüttl began his professional footballing career at Grazer AK in Austria. He then played five years for Austria Vienna, before starting a journeyman career that saw him play at Austria Salzburg, Mechelen (Belgium), Lierse (Belgium) before arriving in Germany in 1998 where he played for 1.FC Köln, Greuther Fürth and Bayern München’s amateur side before ending his career in 2004.
Germany then very much remained the centre of his professional life. This was after all the early 2000s when German football started to re-invent itself. Still in the aftershock of Germany crashing out of the 2004 European Championships the country went through a big reboot and turned everything from talent production to coaching education upside down.
It was in that environment that Ralph Hasenhüttl would set his football philosophy that would define the early stages of his career. Although the German national team would later become a dominant force, and ultimately a failure, through possession type football, the philosophy within German club football was very different.
In 2010 Mirko Slomka at Hannover 96 revolutionised the way football was going to be played in the Bundesliga. The head coach had a simple philosophy the ball had to be turned over from defensive to the attacking third in less than ten seconds. The idea was simple Slomka, based on studies that the human mind needs about ten seconds to come to terms with a changing situation wanted to make use of the chaos created by the opponent losing the ball.
That philosophy was quickly adopted by most German clubs and was also the foundation of Jürgen Klopp’s heavy metal football that would lead to Dortmund win the title in 2011 and 2012 and even, eventually, saw the two German sides Dortmund and Bayern take the Champions League by storm.
Ralph Hasenhüttl from Unterhaching to the Bundesliga
But let us return to Hasenhüttl first. Because while this was taking place in the German top flight Ralph Hasenhüttl was still earning his spurs in the lower echelons of German football. Following the end of Hasenhüttl’s career, he became a youth coach at SpVgg Unterhaching – the smallest of the three Munich based professional clubs.
Then in 2005 Ralph Hasenhüttl, who had already earned a coaching licence, became the assistant coach to team chef Harry Deutinger, who did not have a coaching licence at that point. It was a position he kept even after Harry Deutinger was replaced with Werner Lorant in March 2007. With Lorant, Haching were relegated from Bundesliga 2, and by October Lorant gave up, and Hasenhüttl took over as the head coach. Under Ralph Hasenhüttl Haching played fantastic football, and in his second season, Haching finished fourth in the newly founded Liga 3.
At the same time, Unterhaching had financial problems, and Ralph Hasenhüttl lacked the financial resources, and many of the best players left the club. In February 2010 Hasenhüttl and Haching parted company.
It took almost a full year for Hasenhüttl to find a new club. But in January 2011 he joined Liga 3 side VfR Aalen. His time in Aalen would in many ways define Hasenhüttl’s career for years to come.
First, Ralph Hasenhüttl managed to promote the club located in the small Baden-Württemberg town of Aalen (population 67,849) to Bundesliga 2. Playing primarily a flat dominant 4-4-2 in Liga 3 Hasenhüttl switched his play to a 4-5-1. Quick transition play became the key ingredient of Aalen’s football identity showing that the head coach was very much in tune of what else was going on in German football.
In fact, Aalen were very much a mini-copy of the likes of Hannover and Dortmund that would make Konterspiel (counter-attack) en vogue in German football. With that style of play, Aalen finished ninth in the Bundesliga 2 table – an impressive result given the resources available and the fact that the club had been recently promoted.
What happens next though was the second feature that would define his career going forward. In June 2013 Aalen and Hasenhüttl parted ways. The head coach was not in line with sporting director Markus Schupp, who was forced to cut the budget for Aalen to stay solvent. Ralph Hasenhüttl, on the other hand, felt that the club needed money to make the next step.
Not seeing a pathway to the top at Aalen the Austrian was consequential and quit. It would be a defining feature of his career.
In 2013 he joined the ambitious second division outfit FC Ingolstadt 04. A plastic club built in the shadows of the Audi factory that calls Ingolstadt its home the club wanted to reach promotion to the Bundesliga. It was a goal that Ralph Hasenhüttl could identify with. The problem, however, was that Ingolstadt had started poorly and were bottom of the table going into the 2013/14 season. Under Ralph Hasenhüttl Ingolstadt, however, would finish tenth and then the following year were promoted to the Bundesliga as Bundesliga 2 champions.
It was a remarkable achievement by the Austrian as Ingolstadt not only won the second division but in 34 games lost just four times (13 draws). With 53 goals scored Ingolstadt also managed the most goals in the league. On a first glance Ingolstadt’s record in Bundesliga 2 is not that impressive but given that it is one of the most balanced leagues in Europe finishing five points ahead of second place Darmstadt that season and six points ahead of third-placed Karlsruher SC is an impressive result.
More impressive, however, was what he achieved the following season. With ten wins, ten draws, and 14 defeats Hasenhüttl’s Ingolstadt finished 11th in the Bundesliga. An impressive result given that most pundits believed that Ingolstadt were destined to be relegated. At the same time, however, Ralph Hasenhüttl refused to renew his contract throughout the season fuelling speculations that he could leave the club.
Bundesliga success at RB Leipzig
For the Austrian the math was simple he had achieved everything there was to achieve with Ingolstadt and as a result, it was time to move on. It also did not aid Ingolstadt that with RB Leipzig one of the most ambitious football projects in German football was promoted following the 2015/16 season.
Guided by sporting director Ralf Rangnick, and owned by Red Bull, RasenBallsport Leipzig, as the club is officially called, the club was looking for a coach that embodied the Red Bull ethos of quick transition play, counter-pressing and attacking football. Rangnick valued the Austrian head coach as the man that came closest to that philosophy.
At the same time, it was not always an easy marriage between the two. Rangnick is very much a coach himself. In fact, the sporting director guided RB Leipzig to promotion the previous year. Furthermore, Rangnick is considered a football philosopher in German football. The first coach to defend with a flat-four and also one of the main thinkers behind Germany’s footballing revolution of the early 2000s.
Having Rangnick as your boss means that you are second in command behind one of the best coaching minds German football has ever seen. It is a demanding task, a task that Hasenhüttl was able to fulfil in his first year at Leipzig as the club finished second in the Bundesliga behind champions Bayern München.
It was a fantastic achievement. Playing primarily 4-2-2-2 RB Leipzig took the league by storm. Quick attacking players and Naby Keïta in midfield meant that the club could overload their opponents when winning the ball in their defensive third. It was something that most Bundesliga sides struggled with as the league, in general, was in a transition as many clubs had somewhat given up on the ethos of counter-attacking football trying to emulate the Pep Guardiola school at Bayern and the German national team’s success at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
“We are a team that plays differently. We have a clear philosophy and a certain way to play football. We always want to fight, give everything, and play attractive attacking football,” Ralph Hasenhüttl told the German newspaper Die Zeit in November 2017. It was the first time of doubt at Leipzig, however, as the club somewhat struggled with the reality of having to play both in the Bundesliga and the Champions League.
Clubs in the Bundesliga no longer allowed Leipzig the room to counter. In fact, most teams now waited deeper looking for Leipzig to be the creative team. “We now handle ball possession very differently. That we had over 60% ball possession in the first few games of the season was not due to us wanting to play that way. No, it was due to other teams sitting deeper and playing more defensive football,” Ralph Hasenhüttl explained. At the time Ralph Hasenhüttl believed that his team would find a solution and at times it did appear they did but by the end of December RB Leipzig were out of the Champions League
Another aspect was that Ralph Hasenhüttl refused to talk about his new contract. One of the main reasons behind that was that the Austrian was keeping an eye on the Bayern job. Bayern had fired Carlo Ancelotti earlier that season and hired an interims head coach in the form of Jupp Heynckes.
Before the winter break, sporting director Rangnick would have happily renewed Hasenhüttl’s contract. But as the season moved on and the contract negotiations tracked on, and Leipzig slipped out of the Champions League spots, it was Hasenhüttl, who all of a sudden was the party pushing for a renewal at Leipzig – especially after Bayern announced the signing of Eintracht Frankfurt head coach Niko Kovač in April 2018.
The first set back
The Futbolgrad Network was on location when RB Leipzig won their final game of the season 6-2 against Hertha Berlin. That result was enough for Leipzig to qualify for the second round of Europa League qualifying. A good result, for a side, that only played their second season in the Bundesliga but not enough for ambitious sporting director Rangnick.
“Nobody is unreplaceable. Coaches always have a limited time at their clubs. Time that we have to use to be successful. That time could be three, four, or five years. In that time we have to achieve the maximum,” Hasenhüttl said in his interview with Die Zeit. Under Rangnick that time can be very limited, especially if the sporting director feels that there has been a regression in Leipzig’s development, which was definitely the case in die Roten Bullen’s second season.
Leipzig at times struggled to find solutions against defensive formation and in the second half of the season, Hasenhüttl’s tactic seemed decoded. Playing predominantly 4-2-2-2 the head coach was internally criticised for lacking a Plan B, a solution to beat teams that did not give Leipzig room to counter. Another aspect was set-pieces, here Leipzig struggled both offensively and defensively to come up with solutions and then finally his defensive formation was lacking with Leipzig conceding too many goals in the later stages of games.
All of that meant that Rangnick ultimately decided that it was time to move on with a different coach. Someone, who could bring more tactical flexibility to the side. In the short-term that coach was Rangnick himself, in the long-term it will be Julian Nagelsmann, who will take over Leipzig next season.
In November 2017 Hasenhüttl said: “Every club I have trained in the past was important for my development. They were all important for my reputation and development. I always worked hard, and it took until I was 47 to become a Bundesliga, head coach.”
Ralph Hasenhüttl has always been consequential, and given his career, it will be interesting to see what lessons he has taken from his time at RB Leipzig. Given that an appointment at Southampton seems to be imminent it is safe to say that the Saints are a step back in his career. But it could be a step back that could lead to two steps forward.
Originally, planning to take a sabbatical for the rest of the season the Saints must have promised significant investment and room for Ralph Hasenhüttl to be creative. His aggressive counter-pressing style certainly fits the English Premier League, the question is will he be able to enhance his repertoire and fix his tactical vulnerability in defence and set-pieces. Only time will tell but overall the English Premier League, in general, and FC Southampton, in particular, can be exciting about yet another fascinating coach heading from Europe across the channel.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.