Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews Southampton's trip to Liverpool in the Premier League's last round of matches before the World Cup break, as new manager Nathan Jones takes charge of Saints for the first time.
Frustration and disappointment. That’s probably the simplest way to distill fan feeling so far, as the 2022/23 campaign has thrown up multiple headaches already.
They’re eighth after 13 Premier League games having fought for the title until the final day last season; and they’ve already lost double the number of games this term (four) than they did in the entirety of 2021/22 (two).
Their longest win streak at any point in the league this season is two, highlighting how inconsistent their form has been and shedding light on how they’re already 15 points off the title pace.
Most concerning of all is the consistent cycling through shapes and styles, trying to find something that sticks – that’s just not a sign of a happy team.
It starts with the departure of Sadio Mané, whose pressing abilities were absolutely crucial to the way this team defended from the front; just how good he is at this is perhaps only fully being realised now he’s gone.
Darwin Núñez was purchased as his replacement, but due to some niggling injuries and a three-game suspension, he has struggled to fully settle in and make a place in the team his own. That’s led Jürgen Klopp back to Roberto Firmino at the tip of the formation, in the hope that the form of familiarity can spark change.
But while that has oiled the engine offensively, helping Mohamed Salah rediscover some form, it hasn’t smoothed over the pressing game. Teams are playing through Liverpool’s press in a way they simply couldn’t in the last few campaigns – and that’s putting the defensive line under pressure.
With Nathan Jones making his managerial bow for Southampton off the back of just a couple of practice sessions, it’s going to be tough for him to enact too many tactical nuances. He might well focus more on initial steps on shape and system with Saints rather than target Liverpool in any way.
But, as mentioned, there are potential avenues open. Most notably, it’s much more possible to play through Liverpool this season, as their pressing is either less frenetic or not deployed at all.
The biggest knock-on effect of this has been increased exposure to right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is less protected and therefore having to engage in more duels in bigger spaces. This has been difficult and been a source of goals conceded – so certainly something Saints should test.
Liverpool may be inconsistent, but their good days are still seriously good (they beat Manchester City in October). Salah has come into form and is getting more shots off per game, which naturally spells danger, and Darwin has a real bull-in-a-china-shop feel to his attacking play.
Alexander-Arnold’s long switch passes into Darwin’s path, right to left, have been a big feature of the last two league games, so Saints will have to be ready for that quick shift one way or another (press the passer or drop off to remove the space).
If Salah has the ball anywhere near the box he’s a big danger – even from the slimmest angle – and Firmino’s ability to drop into midfield to conduct play always threatens to pull a defensive line apart.
Finally, their set-piece deliveries are still superb; even when their open play creativity breaks down, dead balls represent a big threat and they’ve created some massive chances from corners lately.
Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Konaté, Van Dijk, Robertson; Fabinho, Thiago, Elliott; Salah, Firmino, Darwin.
-Klopp will want to see out this period with a win and go strong, but a midweek cup game may force a few rotations here and there
-Elliott should get the nod over Carvalho and Henderson in central midfield
-Konaté’s return to fitness has been hugely helpful to the stability of the defensive line