The Season So Far
As usual, Southampton’s season began with a chorus of "well they obviously won’t be as good as they were last season"s, and for the first time in a long time it looked as though they naysayers may actually have been correct. An uninspiring start to the season, in which the Saints won only one of their first six games, gave credence to the idea that their unbelievably consistent Moneyballing was an unsustainable project in the long-term, and they faded from view somewhat.
There was even a mid-season collapse, in which they won only once in eight matches, losing six of them along the way. As injuries piled up and their remaining star players sunk into prolonged slumps, they were well and truly sucked into the unremarkable melange that is the Premier League's midtable. The idea of Ronald Koeman being linked with a whole host of top clubs, as he was this time last year, seemed unimaginable.
Then, out of nowhere, they put together a run of form and rocketed back up the table. It’s now six unbeaten, a run that includes five wins, and the perennial overachievers are somehow sitting in sixth place again, breathing down the necks of the fast imploding Manchester United. It’s still a good time to be a Southampton fan: quietly evolving and improving, and bloodying the noses of the mightier when they least expect it.
The Season Ahead
There’s no reason why Southampton can’t sustain their run of recent form and secure a top six finish: confidence is high, the fixture list is clear and they’ve hit upon a system that works for their players and confuses the opposition’s. The teams around them have more games to play and, relatively speaking, the Saints are under no pressure: whereas every attack Man Utd face is potentially crisis-inducing and every shot that flies wide is reason to sack the manager and sell the entire squad, and while West Ham will probably start to feel the need to give the Boleyn Ground a good send-off with tangible success feeling closer and closer every week, Southampton just have to keep playing well and doing the right things on and off the pitch. Not so tall an order.
As ever, the emphasis is all on showing intensity, putting pressure on the ball, winning it back quickly and getting it forward even quicker. They will give everything on the pitch and any team to have faced them will leave knowing they had a really tough experience. Of this much, Chelsea can be certain. Exactly how their opponents will line up is slightly harder to predict.
Koeman, like Mauricio Pochettino before him, has almost exclusively stuck to a high-pressing 4-2-3-1 during his time at St Marys. However, he has recently moved to a rather strange and lop-sided 3-4-2-1 (possible notations also include 3-4-1-2, 3-2-3-2, 3-2-4-1, and 3-just-go-and-play).
Heavily skewed to the left, the system includes a Dani Alves-style right wing-back, two out-and-out centre-backs on the right side of defence, the out of position left-back Ryan Bertrand as the other centre-back, with left wing-back Matt Targett ahead of him. In the middle of the park there are two all-action tackling and passing machines, with Sadio Mané and Shane Long in more-or-less free roles off of the world’s handsomest beanpole, Graziano Pellè.
It looks bizarre on paper and even weirder on the heatmaps, but on the pitch it has had a great deal of success, and it’s pretty obvious why: the system accentuates his players’ strengths while covering for their weaknesses, as all successful systems do for those playing in them.
Cedric Soares and Virgil Van Dijk looked like fish out of water for much of the season but now have requisite cover from all angles, Jose Fonte’s lack of pace is less of a problem with two quicker players alongside him, and, although Dušan Tadić may disagree, this front three is Koeman’s best available mix of talent and consistency, and this system allows each player to play to their strengths, with each player having numerous options to combine as they prefer.
As ever, this is a team that works incredibly hard to win the ball back – perhaps not as hard as they did in the Pochettino era, but still way above the average. Injuries and suspensions have hampered them over the course of the season, and will continue to do so on Saturday, so perhaps their numbers aren’t quite reflective of their true strength, but 18.8 tackles per game, 19.2 interceptions per game are 10.8 fouls per game are figures illustrative of a good pressing system regardless.
They also rank respectably for shots blocked per game and crosses blocked per game, which shows that even when their opponents get through the press there’s still a lot more to do. So effective have they been without the ball – yet again – that only two teams’ keepers have been worked less this season. There’s a good argument that had Fraser Forster been fit all year, then Southampton’s save percentage would be significantly higher than its current 73% and they’d be even higher up the table.
In attack, they’re great at taking a good number of shots from good positions: only Arsenal and Manchester City have taken more shots from inside the area this season. This is partly down to the type of chances they create, but it’s mostly down to the speed and directness with which they come forward. Unlike Louis Van Gaal (as he always tries to be, of course), Koeman has his team attacking very quickly, before the opposition can set themselves, at all costs.
The obvious weakness is, and has always been, their ability to create good chances. Their conversion rate of 8.5% is below the league average – and given that on average only two sides shoot from closer to the goal, that makes little sense. The reasons their rate is so low are that 1. no team takes more headed shots than they do (2.9 per game), and 2. no team creates more chances via crosses either (3.5 per game).
Sure, they’re creating quite a healthy number chances close to the opposition’s goal, but they’re not creating too many good chances. They're flying at their strikers who have no time to prepare their finish, and even with Pellè's aerial power, have to attempt shots unlikely to result in goals. In terms of Expected Goals (#teamxG), they’ve only created 29.8 this season, and they’ve scored 34 actual goals, which is obviously overperforming – and this with a below average conversion rate overall. It’s a mess.
As ever, Victor Wanyama is suspended, so Koeman may abandon his 3-4-whatever experiment and return to 4-2-3-1, but let’s assume he doesn’t. As for Chelsea, rotation should be the order of the day. It’d be nice to see some kids getting minutes but… yeah.
Bet your house on a score draw.