Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl has been surprised by how his side have become “completely different” from the one which started out 2020 looking set for another survival battle.
This time last year, the Saints headed into Christmas sitting 17th and just three points above the Premier League drop zone.
The upturn in fortunes particularly since Project Restart, however, has been remarkable – with five wins and just one defeat seeing Southampton end the interrupted campaign in 11th place.
Hasenhuttl’s well-drilled side have remained upwardly mobile this season, briefly topping the table during an unbeaten run of seven matches.
Saints head to Fulham on Boxing Day looking to respond following a 1-0 home defeat by Manchester City, a match where they were somewhat unfortunate not to take anything from.
Hasenhuttl, appointed in early December 2018, feels the club’s progress is testament to a collective effort on the training ground and out the pitch.
“We had a very successful year to be honest. We had successful times where we definitely played fantastic football, and (with) the development of the team,” the Austrian said.
“When you are that long in your job I think there are not so many things that surprise you.
“But I think the way we developed our game, especially with the ball, was one of the most surprising parts of my management career so far, because nobody expected that.
“When you see them playing now, it is completely different.
“This is definitely for us all a very big statement for the team, that they wanted to learn and they have learned very quickly, we sent in the right messages maybe – and that is the reason why now we are in the position we are.”
Southampton head into the Boxing Day schedule sitting seventh, but only three points off second place.
“It is still very tight there in front, when you win two games you are immediately up into the Champions League spots, and when you don’t win for two weeks you move immediately back and it is turning quickly,” Hasenhuttl said.
“But I think the overall performances, with the way we want to play football, is coming closer to what we really want to see from our team.
“This is maybe the biggest positive thing of this very, very negative 2020 with the circumstances of the virus and everything. We enjoyed our job definitely, yes.”
Fulham, meanwhile, are battling for points at the other end of the table.
Scott Parker’s men are unbeaten in three matches, drawing each – which started by holding champions Liverpool 1-1 at Craven Cottage.
“Fulham are one of the better-organised teams in the league with a very, very tough team to create chances against,” said Hasenhuttl, who has fitness doubts over the likes of forward Danny Ings and centre-back Jannik Vestergaard, while midfielder Oriol Romeu is suspended.
“We must find a way through the lines, it is not easy, but we must first see who is available to play before we discuss the game plan.
“I was a little bit surprised that they did not have a better start, but now they show up extremely (well) and they show how tough they are to beat.”