Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe analyses Southampton's chances of ending the Premier League season seven matches unbeaten, ahead of the final day visit of Sheffield United to St Mary's. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Utilita Energy...
The final game of what has, at times, felt like a never-ending season, plays out this weekend as Southampton welcome Sheffield United to St Mary’s.
The previous encounter between these two sides was a tight, tense affair – settled by a singular, spectacular Moussa Djenepo strike – and this one projects to be similar, pitting two extremely well-coached XIs against one another.
Both have hit their respective ceilings in the Premier League table and there’s no European qualification or relegation threat in play, but you’ll still see full intensity in both performances – Ralph Hasenhüttl and Chris Wilder would suffer no less.
Here are the three keys to what would be a 15th and final victory of the campaign for Saints.
Much has been made of Sheffield United’s novel overlapping centre-back tactics – something we’ve rarely, if ever, seen in Premier League history.
The Blades utilise three centre-backs in defence and they hold natural positions when defending, but when on the ball the left and right CBs push outward to the touchline and overlap, joining up with the wing-back, the wide central midfielder and perhaps the forward drifting over.
The danger often pointed to from this is the surprising crossing ability of the CBs – Jack O’Connell on the left, Chris Basham on the right – but the real point of these unorthodox movements is to create numerical overloads.
United will constantly try to create 3v2s or 4v3s on the left or the right, slipping a man into the penalty box and feeding him. From there, shooting chances or further lay-offs open up as defences move to accommodate.
Stopping this takes extreme concentration levels from everyone, but in particular the wingers will need to stay alert and aware, careful to track the man at all times – rather than watch the ball.
A striking amount of variety
The bulk of Sheffield United’s transfer spend last summer went on strikers, with Oli McBurnie and Lys Mousset – two very different types of player – walking through the door.
With two former Saints in poacher Billy Sharp and attacking facilitator David McGoldrick already in situ, it gave Wilder an extreme variety of forward options to choose from, allowing him to tweak the strategy both between games and midway through them.
It’s tough to say who will play on a weekly basis, and particularly so on the final day, so Saints will have to be ready and prepared for everything and anything.
McGoldrick drops in off the front line, sets a quick tempo by moving the ball around and makes extremely clever movements that are tough to track.
Sharp comes alive in the box, Mousset is rapid and excels playing on the shoulder, while McBurnie is a good hold-up man – though, curiously given his size, he seems much more effective when the ball is played to his feet than to his head.
Saints will line up against two of them, but which two? They’ll find out at 3pm, calibrate, and then perhaps need to re-calibrate later on if Wilder switches things up.
Those who expected Southampton to waltz through the final part of their season have been proved entirely wrong.
The intensity, the desire and the fight has been there since the first minute of post-lockdown football, and it’s clear the team are attempting to build momentum to push into next season with.
That will continue into the final game, partly because Hasenhüttl will demand it so, but also due to the number of individual storylines winding through this game.
The big one is Danny Ings’s chase for the Golden Boot. He needs two to draw level with Jamie Vardy and three to overtake him (and that’s without Vardy netting on Sunday), and that’ll be a tough task against the fourth-best defence in the league (36 goals conceded from 37 games).
Nathan Redmond will look to supply him, as he has done in the last two games against Brighton & Hove Albion and AFC Bournemouth. He created one for Stuart Armstrong against Manchester United too, meaning his streak of three straight games with an assist could stretch to four.
And then there’s Ché Adams, who has found his feet in front of goal lately, lining up against his former club.
For him to finish his maiden Premier League campaign with another goal could be transformative for him personally, as well as the team heading into a crucial summer of evolution.