Sam Tighe looks ahead to a potentially gruelling tussle between Southampton and Leeds at St Mary's. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Southampton return to Premier League duty this weekend and in doing so welcome Leeds United to St Mary’s Stadium.
The Whites picked up their first win of the campaign just before the international break and would have wanted to use that as a building block to generate momentum ahead of this fixture, but instead the enforced pause disrupted things.
Perhaps that can be seen as a positive, as Patrick Bamford and Luke Ayling have needed time to recover from injuries, while Kalvin Phillips withdrew from the England squad due to an existing calf strain; but then again, star midfield man Raphinha flew halfway across the world to light up the World Cup qualifiers for Brazil. It’s incredibly unlikely he’ll return in time to walk out at St Mary’s.
His absence would undoubtedly blunt Leeds’ attack to a degree: he’s their top scorer this season, their most skilful and ingenious player and their best crosser. A left-footer cutting in off the right, he can play at various angles and threaten in multiple ways.
Dan James will be asked to step into his place and provide that speed and dynamism that we all associate so closely with Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, while Jack Harrison will mirror his efforts on the left. They could also be joined by wing-backs, as Bielsa tends to switch to a back three when he anticipates facing a strike duo.
The other big question for the Whites will be who plays up front. Or, perhaps more accurately, is Bamford fit enough to lead the line? The answer will go a long way to determining Leeds’ threat level, but perhaps more importantly dictate how effectively they build play too.
Without Bamford, who scored 17 and assisted seven more in the league last term, the midfield’s struggle to retain possession at key moments has been amplified; Rodrigo – whether he’s deployed up front or in midfield – cannot offer the same relief point, and both Stuart Dallas and Mateusz Klich’s form has dipped from last year’s stellar level.
It’s led to the Whites going direct and long with the ball to create chances far more often than a Bielsa team historically would, trading patience in possession for long shots – something that rarely leads to clear-cut chances being created.
That impatience is something Southampton must look to exploit, particularly in central midfield. Losing James Ward-Prowse to suspension hurts, but in Oriol Romeu and Ibrahima Diallo, the club have players of the right ilk to go shoulder to shoulder with Leeds’ fast, frenetic, physical approach to the game.
Stuart Armstrong’s potential reintroduction is cause for great optimism too – if not solely because he’s been such a positive force for Southampton during the Ralph Hasenhüttl era, then because left-back is an area Leeds have had difficulty with this term following the departure of Ezgjan Alioski.
If the game begins to stretch late on – something that can often happen when two press-hungry sides slog it out for 90 minutes – then Armando Broja’s hustle-and-bustle style could be a difference-maker for Saints.