Tactical Watch: Saints' pressing may be compromised


Sam Tighe looks ahead to the visit of Burnley to St Mary's in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with

Fresh off the back of earning a first victory of the Premier League season, Southampton now host one of the division’s three remaining teams still looking to break their duck: Burnley.

It’s been a slow start for the Clarets, with just five goals scored in eight games and a single clean sheet to goalkeeper Nick Pope’s name. But if any club know how to gradually move through the gears in a long, long season, it’s Burnley.

The 2018/19 campaign brought no wins from the first five games, 2019/20 just one win from five, and in 2020/21 only two points were earned from the first seven fixtures. Not since 2017/18, when Sean Dyche’s men qualified for Europe, have they come out of the blocks firing. It hasn’t tended to weigh on them particularly heavily; in all those years, they’ve easily coasted clear of relegation.

Without much in the way of summer transfer business, the Burnley XI that walks out at St Mary’s will look and feel very familiar. Lined up in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 formation, anchored by James Tarkowski and spearheaded by Chris Wood, they attack and create in a very, well, familiar way.

The statistics paint a good picture of the test on offer: Their league-lowest 39.4% average share of possession per game, combined with the fact they’ve attempted (and completed) the fewest passes, speaks to their willingness to move the ball forward quickly and attack directly.

The 6ft 3in Wood is a valuable target when going direct, and whoever partners him up front will try to play close to him, either battling for knockdowns and second balls, or stretching the defence with a run in behind that Wood can aim a flick-on for.

A team who moves the ball forward quickly, as opposed to building slowly from the back and through the lines, are among the most difficult to press. There have been games this season where Saints have dropped off and played a more compact defensive game, rather than always hunting for the ball; this could well be another occasion where that approach is logical.

Burnley have attempted and completed the third-most crosses in the division this season, moving the ball wide whenever possible in order to tease in a delivery. A combined 73% of their attacking work has come down the flanks this season, with new signing Maxwel Cornet and the impressive Dwight McNeil clear threats if both are fit.

The Clarets are dangerous in the air off the first ball, but then also from the ground off the second and third balls – something Leeds discovered in August as Wood scored following a failure to clear their lines. A physical and aerial tussle is one that Mohammed Salisu naturally relishes, but just as important will be the central midfield duo’s alertness to scraps and second balls in the box.

In attack, Southampton should be able to find some space between Burnley’s lines, while the occasional lapse at the back has created goalscoring chances for opponents over the course of this season. That’s something Dyche has consistently rued in his post-match comments, citing “mistakes, focus and concentration” quite often, and Saints will hope he’ll be doing so again by 5pm.