Tactical Watch: Fast start can fire Saints to victory


Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews Southampton's first match of 2023, as Nottingham Forest visit St Mary's in the Premier League.

Wednesday’s opponent is one that will be desperate to put in a performance and break a concerning streak in the process.

Forest have the worst away record in the Premier League, losing six and drawing the other two of their eight games on the road so far. They’ve scored just a single goal and conceded a whopping 22; Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester City all put three or more past them.

Granted, much of the punishment has come at the hands of traditional top-six teams, but the knock-on effect has been a clear lack of confidence in themselves whenever Forest step away from the City Ground.

Southampton’s first, immediate task will be to start the game fast and assert themselves, therefore preying on any potential uncertainties in a team who simply have not looked quite right on its travels.

Throughout last season in the Championship and in the early parts of this campaign, Forest consistently utilised three central defenders, two wing-backs, then switched the forward alignment depending on the opposition. Sometimes it was a 3-5-2, others it was a 3-4-2-1.

That changed, though, in the wake of a 3-2 home defeat to Fulham in September; since then it’s pretty much been 4-3-3 all the way and they’ve continued in that shape following the World Cup break, suggesting manager Steve Cooper believes in it long term.

There’s great athleticism and attacking threat from the wing-backs, the midfield is busy and tenacious, while the forward line can be clever and speedy when the mood strikes.

They tend to attack using wide combinations rather than build through the centre and can be quite direct – evidenced by the fact they play the fewest short passes per game of any side in the league.

Summer signing Taiwo Awoniyi isn’t exactly matching his prolific scoring rate at Union Berlin last season – he plundered 15 league goals last season but has returned just a fraction of that in the Premier League so far – but he remains a real handful.

He likes early balls forward, ideally to chase into the channel, but he can trap and protect it too. There’s a bustling nature to his play that’s underpinned by real speed, making him an almost Ché Adams-esque forward presence at times. He prefers the left channel, so the right side of Southampton’s defence are in for a physical day.

The threat from the other flank takes a different form. Brennan Johnson’s ghosting movements are more of a mental conundrum than a physical one, while Neco Williams’s long-range shooting threat from right-back is something to close off and be wary of.

Henderson; Williams, Worrall, Boly, Lodi; Yates, Freuler, O’Brien; Johnson, Awoniyi, Dennis.

-Jesse Lingard could feature from the flank, but his hamstring has been troubling him of late

-Emmanuel Dennis can play across the front line and stand in for any absences

-Orel Mangala (CM), Harry Toffolo (LB), Serge Aurier (RB) and Scott McKenna (CB) are all fighting for playing time amid a hectic schedule

-Freuler, standing in for Kouyaté at the base of midfield, is a slick, experienced operator