Southampton is currently enjoying one of their best starts to a Premier League campaign in a very, very long time. Ahead of Monday’s clash with league leaders Liverpool, the Saints are tied for seventh place with a game in hand, while just three points off the second spot as the top of the Premier League table remains extremely competitive.
After eight league matches, Southampton was sitting at the very top of England’s top flight for the first time in their history. Although it was short-lived, it just goes to show how impressive this club has been. Considering they finished in 11th place last season, it’s been a remarkable run for the Saints.
The question is, does this team really have what it takes to contest for a top-six finish? It’s still very early in the season, so it would be hard to predict. But certainly, all signs are pointing to it.
Despite the brilliance of Danny Ings and James Ward-Prowse in the final third, manager Ralph Hasenhuttl is the man who has brought the best out of his players. After nearly getting sacked last season, the Austrian has completely flipped the script in 2020/21.
His brilliant tactics have Southampton keeping up with the best of the best in the Premier League. Hasenhuttl typically plays a 4-2-2-2 formation, which he perfected at RB Leipzig before making the switch to St Mary’s in 2018.
His backline is very patient and smart with their decisions as they generate build-up into their opponent’s half. The Saints’ full-backs tend to push out wide, which is especially instrumental when moving the ball up the flanks on the counter-attack. But, Southampton’s defenders have no issues just knocking the ball back and forth in their own end before actually finding the opportunity to set an attacker free.
Due to their consistent passing at the back, it tends to draw their opponents in, which opens up more space for their midfielders and forwards to lose their checks. Due to this, the Saints can find vertical passes through the middle up to the likes of Ings and Che Adams, or simply get the ball out wide and swiftly move up the pitch. They’re never rushed to surge forward if the opportunities don’t present themselves. But, oppositions definitely get pulled in, thinking they can push more men forward and create a mistake in the Southampton backline. Sure, it happens from time to time but typically, these tactics work quite well.
Hasenhuttl loves to create chances from the flanks because of his side’s tremendous pace. With players like Kyle Walker-Peters and Theo Walcott, there’s always the possibility of beating an opponent simply with speed then whipping in early crosses when they can catch their oppositions off guard. When this does happen, Southampton loves to overload the box with players, typically having three or four attackers present.
Possession isn’t a necessity
The Saints aren’t focused on possessing the ball for the majority of matches but rather, creating meaningful opportunities in the final third that actually give them a legitimate chance to bag goals. If they can’t find the necessary space to move forward, they’re also not afraid to restart the engine and dump the ball back to their defenders.
This is what makes Hasenhuttl’s tactics different than say, a Leeds. Marcelo Bielsa, for example, it’s hell-bent on attacking all the time which has often left his side vulnerable at the back this season. Don’t get me wrong they play beautiful football at times, but there’s less of a focus on defending.
With Southampton, they’re always stable in their own end, especially since one of their defensive midfielders usually drops back as well. However, when they don’t have the ball, the Saints put immense pressure on their opponents to create turnovers or make senseless passes.
Southampton rank first in the Premier League this season in tackles succeeded and attempted with 11.7 and 19.7 per match, respectively. As a backline, they’re just second in the league behind Leeds as well with 315 tackles this term. Physicality is certainly a strong suit of this outfit in all areas of the pitch.
When attacking, the Saints are also not afraid to attempt low percentage passes into the channels. Sure, the long balls over the top don’t always work out, but there have been several occasions this season where Ings, Walcott, or Adams have run onto these types of balls and buried goals. It’s just one area of their game that has its place in the tactics that Hasenhuttl instills.
A well-rounded squad
There is no doubt that Ings is the heartbeat of this club thanks to his ability to bag goals. The Englishmen has missed time this season, but nonetheless, he’s netted six goals and tallied three assists. Adams is finally coming into his own with Southampton and has formed quite the partnership with Ings, while Walcott has brought excitement to the attack as well. Then from dead-ball situations, Ward-Prowse has been an absolute magician.
From front to back, the Saints are a fundamentally sound team. It may have taken a couple of years for Ralph Hasenhuttl to really find his footing at St Mary’s, but every single player has now bought into his system. In return, Southampton is thriving and making their case for a spot in Europe by the season’s end.