Sam Tighe explains the impact Southampton's forward pairing can have against a Newcastle side rejuvenated under Eddie Howe. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
This one’s been a long time coming! Southampton were supposed to kick off 2022 by welcoming Newcastle United to St Mary’s, and now a full two months later, the rearranged fixture finally takes place.
It’s fair to say Saints’ opponents look a little different compared to early January: Newcastle have gone from six games without a win to five wins in six, lifting themselves out of – and comfortably clear of – the relegation mire in the process.
This upturn has widely been attributed to their eye-popping January transfer window in which five excellent players were acquired, but accompanying that has been an improvement across the board from existing players. Head coach Eddie Howe has steadily lifted everyone’s level.
No player is more emblematic of this transformation than Joelinton. Central midfield was not the area of the pitch anyone truly expected him to find form in, but his combination of physicality and ball-carrying, plus a tremendous work rate, has made him a key man in the middle.
He and Joe Willock as box-to-box No. 8s have been superb, meaning big winter buy Bruno Guimarães has been able to settle in slowly. Their energy counter-balances Jonjo Shelvey’s more stationary role in front of the defence. His long-range passing prowess is no secret, but unlocking it in the right way has at times been a challenge; Howe has found an effective formula.
He’s also managed to field a relatively settled XI, despite a few injuries dogging their February matches. But in Allan Saint-Maximin’s absence, Jacob Murphy has impressed; in Kieran Trippier’s wake, Emil Krafth has been steady; and Chris Wood has carried the torch up front while Callum Wilson recovers.
Wood’s yet to score in seven appearances for the Magpies, but for what he’s lacked in finishing to date, he’s made up for with good hold-up and link play. His midfielders use him as a platform to work off and a distraction to occupy and pin opposing defenders. Southampton must be particularly wary of runs from deep when Wood’s backed into a defender with the ball.
Saint-Maximin’s return to the setup will give Newcastle a burst of dribbling and speed. He’s one of the more dangerous 1v1 players about, meaning Saints’ full-backs should be in for quite the athletic tussle should they come into contact with him.
At the other end, Southampton’s front pairing will give Newcastle’s defence a new, stern test. They haven’t once played against a genuine strike partnership during this excellent run, so that will pose different questions as the centre-backs match up 1v1. If Saints can nail the transition and counter-attacks, they might be able to work 6ft 6in Dan Burn’s turning circle to their advantage.
Tactically it’s intriguingly poised, but Southampton’s ability to shake off the Aston Villa result and come in with a fresh mentality is equally important. This is a chance to start a new unbeaten streak of their own and regain some momentum in a very busy period.