Tactical Watch: Long-range Saints can flourish


Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's second home game of the week, as Watford visit St Mary's on Sunday. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with

This weekend Southampton welcome a Watford side who are scrapping for Premier League survival. With 10 games to go until the end of the season they’re right in amongst it, meaning the home stretch will be a nervy one for players and fans alike.

The Hornets have placed Roy Hodgson at the helm for this tricky time, trusting the 74-year-old’s experience under pressure and coaching chops to find them an edge. The results haven’t exactly flowed at home, but form on the road has at least picked up.

This Watford squad is built to play direct, counter-attacking football and Hodgson has leaned into that, prioritising more direct play from the back and fielding as much speed as possible in advanced areas and on the wings. This suits key players such as Emmanuel Dennis and Ismaïla Sarr.

It’s a tactic that has worked in patches – particularly away from Vicarage Road – as four points from bouts with Manchester United and Aston Villa attest to. They had just 33% and 40% possession respectively in those games, soaking up pressure before springing onto the break, with Sarr particularly devastating against Villa.

Unfortunately, yet another injury to Sarr has disrupted things, and in his absence Watford have tried all sorts of different combinations to complement top-scorer Dennis: Josh King, who is direct and fast; João Pedro, a skilful dribbler; and Cucho Hernández, who can conjure truly magical moments. The look of the front three changes regularly.

The rest of the team looks more settled: Tom Cleverley and Moussa Sissoko have been more or less ever-presents for Hodgson in midfield, while he’s tried to field the same back four wherever possible to create some consistency and continuity.

The setup is almost always reactive, rather than proactive, so Watford will highly likely play in a way that grants Southampton the lion’s share of possession. They’re not an active pressing side, and the midfield makeup tends to lend itself more to quicker transitions or ball carries, rather than established possession and tempo control.

That means Saints will need to find ways to break down a low block; clever off-the-ball movements from midfielders work well here, as does hitting the byline and feeding the ball low into the box from wide.

That could shape up for a frustrating afternoon, though, so it’s crucial Southampton take advantage of any transition attack opportunities granted to them, as this is an area Watford have looked vulnerable in of late.

The Hornets grant a lot of space in midfield in these scenarios and don’t utilise any kind of fine-tuned pressing game to prevent opponents breaking into it. It leads to good shooting opportunities and – of particular note to Saints – some fouls outside the box as Watford try to recover. There isn’t a place on earth more dangerous to give away free-kick opportunities within 25 yards of goal than St Mary’s.