Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews Southampton's return to Premier League action after six weeks away, as Saints host Brighton on Boxing Day.
Brighton chose to jet off for a warm-weather training camp in Dubai while domestic football paused for the World Cup.
Manager Roberto De Zerbi only took charge in mid-September, stepping in for Graham Potter, so will surely have welcomed the chance to zero in on some strong tactical and training work with his new squad – a bit like Nathan Jones did here at Southampton.
The Seagulls played one friendly out there against Aston Villa, drawing 2-2, and De Zerbi got a good look at the depths of the squad, given they were missing seven World Cup attendees.
From a human perspective, he’s been warmly embraced by the fans. Potter was a very popular figure and replacing him felt a tough task, but Brighton supporters see a lot of Potter’s good traits in De Zerbi and are right behind him – they even circulate a giant flag with his face on ahead of kick-off.
From a tactical perspective, De Zerbi has, understandably, had to tweak a few things from his last job at Shakhtar Donetsk. He no longer manages the clearly dominant team in every encounter, so he’s had to adapt his approach to the opposition, rather than utilise a more one-size-fits-all approach.
The underlying principles of his football, though, remain: he wants the ball, he wants to build from the back, he’ll encourage his players to circulate the ball in deeper areas to bait the opponent’s press – and then play through it quickly and launch attacks.
Circulating possession deep is risky. It invites pressure in risky areas, and while the pay-off can be taking five opposing players out of the game, it can cost you dearly if it goes wrong. Even De Zerbi himself has labelled it a “gamble” in the past.
We could well be in store for a game of chicken: Brighton trying to coax Saints out to engage their centre-backs with the ball; Saints sitting in a mid-block and trying to sense when the right moment to step out is.
There’s no doubt that you can catch them cold – Villa did exactly this in the last Premier League round, robbing Alexis Mac Alister on the edge of his own box, then feeding Danny Ings to score – but there’s also the lingering risk that if your pressure doesn’t tell, you’ll get caught cold instead.
Saints’ setup in the cup had echoes of Jones’s Luton Town team: back three, dual strikers and long, raking balls played out from the central centre-back (Lyanco) to begin moves, aimed either at Ché Adams or the wing-backs.
It felt a step away from the 4-4-2-ish shape used against Liverpool back in November and a step towards a Jones system. That feels like a positive, as it means he’s putting his stamp on the team ahead of a very different second half of the season.
What was also positive was both Samuel Edozie and Theo Walcott’s impact off the bench – albeit the latter’s was short-lived. Edozie’s 1v1 dribbling caused chaos and Walcott provided two classy crosses into the box that led to chances. It’s essential to have game-changing options to turn to.
Sánchez; Gross, Dunk, Colwill, Estupiñán; Gilmour, Caicedo; March, Lallana, Trossard; Welbeck.
-De Zerbi should be able to welcome back all of his World Cup participants bar one: Alexis Mac Allister
-If Mac Allister is unavailable, Gilmour is a prime option to slot into central midfield
-Gross has been utilised in a sort of right-back role to great effect
-Mitoma has been electric when given the chance and could work his way into the team
-Undav is pushing Welbeck for a start up front, but the latter’s experience will mean a lot for this fixture