Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's trip to Leeds in the Premier League in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Southampton return to Premier League action against a Leeds United team who look significantly different to the last time the two crossed paths.
That’s down to a change in manager: Marcelo Bielsa left the club in February and they were quick to bring in Jesse Marsch as his replacement; he’s changed the formation, the style and done a good job of lifting the mood in a dressing room that had lost four straight and conceded 17 goals in the process.
Marsch comes from the same Red Bull coaching tree as Southampton’s own Ralph Hasenhüttl, and the shape he’s utilised so far at Leeds is resemblant of the 4-2-2-2 St Mary’s is so used to seeing. That makes this matchup a little like February’s bout with Manchester United – AKA “Ralph vs Ralf.”
4-2-2-2 is a marked step away from Bielsa’s 4-3-3 or 3-3-1-3 shape (often the latter against Saints, as Bielsa always played three centre-backs against two strikers in order to maintain a spare man to sweep). They’ve switched from dogged man-marking to zonal marking, meaning games against Leeds are no longer 1v1 contests across the pitch.
The final major change is how narrow Leeds play under Marsch, compared to the extreme width demanded by Bielsa. The full-backs and wingers would stand touchline-wide in build-up to make the pitch as big as possible, creating big gaps between players to spring into. Under Marsch that’s less of a priority, with the new formation lending itself to a different style of build-up.
Marsch’s move to 4-2-2-2 is consistent with his coaching across his career, but also provides short-term relief to a Leeds side who have struggled mightily without a familiar focal point up front this season. Patrick Bamford’s campaign has essentially been a write-off and he’s now been ruled out for the rest of the season; Bielsa tried four different players in his place and none clicked; Marsh has replaced one with two.
A rough night against Aston Villa aside, Rodrigo has been one of the big benefactors of this switch and has emerged as a key player of late. Playing in a strike duo has left him less isolated, being relieved of man-marking duties has lifted him, and he’s now able to drift without breaking the team’s structure – though the narrow front four all rotate positions frequently, meaning they press with the four lined up in different positions every five minutes.
Southampton should still expect a rugged, intense match, but the challenge will not be as uniquely man-oriented and downright physical as it once was. There’s new heart to this team, though – they believe in themselves again – as evidenced by 93rd- and 91st-minute winners in the last two games.
The centre of the pitch will be less open, meaning a previous weakness under Bielsa has been shored up. As a consequence of that, though, Leeds are now more vulnerable down the flanks – especially when the press doesn’t get going quickly enough to block balls down the wing.
It’s easy enough to get 1v1 with Leeds’ full-backs, and therefore opportunities to get balls into the box open up. That’s a clear area Southampton can find success in, serving up plenty of opportunities to Saints’ own strike pair.