Their teams have only met once before, but Ralph Hasenhüttl and Jürgen Klopp go way back. Liverpool travel to Southampton on Friday in a game with huge significance and two ex-Bundesliga coaches impressing in England.
Ralph Hasenhüttl is getting used to being up against it. The Austrian coach took a leap of faith when he agreed to take the reins at relegation-threatened Southampton just before Christmas after leaving RB Leipzig.
So far, he's been rewarded. A run of three wins in four games has helped the south coast club pull five points clear of the drop zone and Hasenhüttl's return of 26 points from 18 games, enough to see them comfortably midtable if extrapolated over a season, has seen him gather plaudits from Saints fans, the English press and the head coach he faces on Friday night.
“Hasenhuttl is doing an incredible job. Since he’s been at Southampton they are eighth in the form table. The analysis (of Southampton) was very interesting – they don’t look like a team fighting to stay in the league," said Klopp in his prematch press conference.
Thanks largely to the woeful record of his predecessor, Mark Hughes, that's still what Southampton are, despite recent improvements. Speaking to goal.com ahead of the game, Hasenhüttl admitted clubs of Southampton's size were up against it in the Premier League.
'Playing Bayern 12 times a season'
"We have six teams at the level of Bayern Munich in the Premier League. So, you could say we play 12 times against Bayern per season. Twelve games in which you don't get many points usually.
"And then there are four or five clubs with the quality of Bayer Leverkusen or RB Leipzig. And then we are the Mainz, Freiburg or Augsburg of the Premier League."
While the table suggests those to be apt comparisons, the wealth of the Premier League means Hasenhüttl's resources are much greater than those of Mainz, Freiburg or Augsburg. Nevertheless, Southampton have built their recent reputation on selling off talent, much of which has come through their youth academy. Gareth Bale and Virgil van Dijk are among the world stars to have played at St. Mary's and Klopp's Liverpool squad boasts a number of ex-Saints, including academy graduates Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, as well as van Dijk and the in-form Sadio Mane.
Klopp's side are equally desperate for points and will go top with a win, with Manchester City playing in the FA Cup rather than Premier League this weekend. The two bosses, both 51, did their coaching badges together in Germany but have only met once as coaches, when Hasenhüttl's VfR Aachen side lost 4-1 to Klopp's Dortmund in the German Cup in 2012.
"It's the first time we play against a very good pressing team," Hasenhüttl told reporters on Thursday. "How they play is a perfect example of a physically strong team combined with the technical qualities, speed and good organization."
Klopp's team a template for Saints
That's a style that he became associated with at Leipzig and one he plans to implement in the longer term at Southampton. But Hasenhüttl has acknowledged implementing his hard-running, hard-pressing style has been a challenge with the squad he inherited.
But his work is already starting to bear fruit, with a drastic improvement in the mood around the club and in several players, most notably another youth product, James Ward-Prowse. The midfielder, 24, was touted as the next man off the St. Mary's production line but his career had stalled under Hughes and, before him, Mauricio Pellegrino and Claude Puel.
Ward-Prowse has scored six goals in his last 10 games, including a number of spectacular free kicks, and started to run the show from the middle of the park, something he'd always threatened but rarely produced in the past. He thinks Hasenhüttl deserves some of the credit.
"I’ve got the confidence that the manager has given me and I’m playing in my natural position," Ward-Prowse said after scoring against Fulham at the end of February. "I’m getting forward and I've got a licence to do that under the new manager. I’m enjoying the run and hopefully there’s more to come before the end of the season. He wants to play quick, direct, attacking football."
That commitment to pace and positivity is shared by Klopp. But with so much on the line at both ends of the table, the two former classmates will each hope to teach the other a lesson on Friday night.