The Season So Far
Southampton have had a blast. After a summer exodus which saw Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers depart, as well as manager Mauricio Pochettino, many pundits predicted a dismal campaign that would inevitably end in relegation. This forecast was hyperbolic – one borne out of ignorance and jingoism that paid no attention to the quality of their recruits – but even so, it’s been a huge surprise to see the Saints spend most of the season deservedly challenging for Champions League qualification.
The highlights have probably been victories over top four rivals Manchester United and Arsenal, notable as games in which established giants were played off the park rather than luckily beaten, but October’s 8-0 thrashing of Sunderland will never be forgotten by anyone who saw it. It showcased everything good about Southampton’s way of playing, their new signings and the hunger instilled in them by Pochettino’s replacement, Ronald Koeman.
Things have tailed off of late, as we all assumed they would, due to suspensions, fatigue and loss of form. Southampton now sit in seventh, four points from Champions League qualification and seven points above eighth-placed Stoke. Realistically, their season is pretty much over: most of their players will go into the final ten games of the season looking to impress watching scouts.
Nonetheless, going from League One to a top-seven finish in the Premier League in just five years is an unbelievable achievement and Southampton deserve all the credit in the world for pulling it off. Furthermore, the club is run well enough to sustain its rapid growth. The future is bright for all Saints fans.
As it was under Pochettino, the team’s most notable tactic is its progressive defensive strategy, based on applying constant pressure to the ball. Only Pochettino’s Spurs make more tackles per game than Southampton and only Spurs and Crystal Palace make more fouls per game. The Saints’ high defensive line and their aggression when out of possession make them very hard to play against: no team allows fewer shots on their goal per game and only West Ham and Everton catch their opponents offside more often.
There are pros and cons to this strategy: while it means that Southampton can easily nullify attacks on their goal before they’ve even started, reducing their defenders’ workload significantly, a direct consequence of always playing in the other team’s half is that their attackers have less space to work with and fewer options when going forward.
They try to work around this by getting their full-backs to contribute in attack – Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne are all-rounders capable of making and scoring goals – but the strategy rarely bears fruit. This season Bertrand has two goals and two assists and Clyne two goals and no assists.
Furthermore, creative players such as Dušan Tadić and Sadio Mané thrive on having space in which to operate and players around them with whom they can combine, but Southampton’s system can deny them those luxuries: it follows logically that if you prevent the opponent from ever getting out of its half, they will often have all eleven players in the area in which you’re trying to attack.
As a consequence, Southampton take only the seventh highest number of shots per game and shots on target per game in the Premier League. For a team that uses a pressing strategy to keep play as far as possible from their own goal, their attacking output should be higher. Tellingly, no team completes fewer dribbles per game than Southampton – their attackers simply don’t have the space to do it.
As previously stated, their biggest strength is the effectiveness of their pressing system. Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama are talented players working in a system perfectly suited to their characteristics and they can bully almost any opponents off the pitch. They’re more than just midfield bruisers, though, and their constructive play in build-up phases has been an underrated factor in Southampton’s success.
The Saints are usually good at set pieces at both ends of the pitch. In attack, James Ward-Prowse hits a mean dead ball and they have plenty of tall players who are also good headers of the ball for him to aim at. In defence, they’re well-drilled and communicate well to ensure that the few set pieces they give away are dealt with. That said, they recently conceded a winner away to West Brom from a simple punt into the area that led to an uncontested second ball, so they’re not infallible.
Additionally, they’re a strong collective with a developed understanding of their responsibilities. It seems like no matter who plays, the performance is more-or-less the same in terms of style, intensity and intent. Koeman will take most of the credit from the media, but really it should go to the club as a whole for running such a tight ship and recruiting so sensibly.
Koeman’s big worry should be that their pressing system is quashing their own attack. Graziano Pellè has gone eleven games without a goal and the big Italian is taking the brunt of the criticism after a couple of big misses, but the real problem is, as outlined above, that Southampton simply don’t have much space to work with and so their attacks are hindered.
Pochettino’s solution was to make their attacks lightning fast and almost completely vertical, so that the constant barrage of forward short passes, one-twos and flicks over the top destabilised the opposition defence enough to produce two or three scoring chances per game. Koeman has rolled that back a little and the emphasis is now more on individual improvisation and crossing – methods which most top managers these days try to avoid relying on.
Another problem facing Koeman, and one that he can do little about, is fatigue. Most of his players have already played over 2,000 minutes this season and the key players that remain below that figure have been out injured for significant periods of time at various points during the campaign. It’s simply impossible to maintain Southampton’s level of intensity for that long without running out of fuel.
Most of Southampton’s starting line-up picks itself. Toby Alderweireld will probably make his return from injury in place of Maya Yoshida, while the other question mark is over the third midfield/second striker spot. Steven Davis usually plays as a third central midfielder and the safest option against Chelsea would be to keep him there, but Filip Đuričić has played as a second striker lately and Pellè’s haplessness might mean that Koeman goes with two strikers again. Tadić could play instead of either Elia or Mané but Koeman seems to have lost trust in the Serb.
Chelsea have to be favourites, especially given Southampton’s recent form, but the Saints have bloodied a few noses away from home since returning to the top flight and the Blues will be struggling physically after the extra-time ordeal against PSG on Wednesday night. It should be a tight game decided in Chelsea’s favour by a single goal.