Sam Tighe looks ahead to Saturday's Premier League match-up at St. James' Park, where Southampton face Newcastle. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
This weekend Southampton take on a task that has proved difficult in recent years: head up to St. James’ Park and beat Newcastle United.
Saints last tasted success there in 2015 on a day where Eljero Elia scored twice. Only James Ward-Prowse and Fraser Forster remain from Saints’ starting XI that day, underlining how much has changed between then and now, but three points have remained elusive.
Recent meetings between the two have shown a huge contrast in styles and this one will be no different. Ralph Hasenhüttl coaches one of the most intense pressing systems in the league, while Steve Bruce coaches the opposite, preferring his teams to sit deeper and absorb pressure.
The ferocity of Saints’ trademark press was on full display on Sunday against Manchester United, frequently trapping centre-backs Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf on the ball and removing their passing options.
In contrast, the day before, Newcastle allowed Aston Villa to build play from the back and move up the pitch in hope of stopping them closer to their own goal.
This bears out in the small sample of statistics for the season so far, most notably in PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action): Newcastle’s score of 15.41 paints the picture of a far more passive team than Southampton’s score of 7.33, which is second only to Leeds United (6.42) in the Premier League.
The Magpies’ preference for defending deep certainly suits their defensive personnel, but perhaps aids their forwards the most. Callum Wilson has looked a real threat running in behind defences early this season, while you’ll get the maximum from Allan Saint-Maximin if he has space to drive into.
Wilson breached Villa’s offside trap twice last weekend; he missed a one-on-one early, then got wiped out for a penalty only to see it rescinded because he was the length of a toe offside. Long balls into the path of his clever runs is Newcastle’s Plan A in attack.
Plan B involves Saint-Maximin’s mazy dribbling and Joe Willock’s direct runs; the two combine nicely and consistently look to overload the right side of the pitch. The way ASM hangs onto the ball naturally attracts defenders, and Willock’s proven adept at timing good runs into the box to get into goalscoring positions.
To keep these threats quiet, two things are key for Saints: first, good pressing and energy up front will stop Newcastle from releasing accurate long balls forward – either into the path of Wilson or into ASM’s feet, so he can turn and go; and second, good communication across the back line can disrupt Wilson’s timing of runs.
Security at one end can allow Saints to focus on a positive game plan at the other, to be aggressive and set the tone. If they can play at a high tempo and sustain some pressure it could well lead to a goal – Newcastle have struggled to clear their lines and relieve pressure on themselves efficiently in the first two Premier League games so far, conceding to second- and third-phase plays and allowing stray balls to be converted.
Those sorts of opportunities will light up Adam Armstrong’s eyes, who will no doubt be gunning for a goalscoring return to his boyhood club.