Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's trip to Sheffield United in his latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Saturday sees Southampton travel to Bramall Lane to take on Sheffield United.
The Saints have won their last three fixtures against the Blades and should have fond memories of their last visit to the S2 area, as Moussa Djenepo scored one of the solo goals of the season to settle the game 1-0.
Chris Wilder’s men have been rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table since November but have started to perk up of late, winning two of their last six – including a midweek win over Aston Villa – so will prove a stern test. Here are the three keys to passing it with flying colours.
Sheffield United’s points tally (14) and position in the table (20th) feels a little deceiving when you watch them play.
Goals have been a problem – no team in the league has scored fewer – but they’ve kept games tight; 18 of their 27 games have been decided by a single goal, with two draws making up a portion of the rest. Southampton’s 3-0 win in December is one of just three matches the Blades have lost by three or more.
They’re rarely comprehensively beaten and more often than not keep games within a goal either way. The fight and fire in their defensive play hasn’t diminished (despite some rotten injury luck that would rival Saints!) and anyone who plays them has to be prepared to roll their sleeves up and – first and foremost – compete.
The Blades have too often fallen on the wrong side of football’s fine margins this season, hence their position and points tally. Southampton must ensure that trend continues, and to do so, it takes hard graft and concentration.
A prominent feature of Southampton’s build-up play throughout the first half of the season was Jannik Vestergaard’s switch passes to Kyle Walker-Peters on the right flank.
The Dane’s ability to pick out a marauding run and set the attacking wheels in motion was second to none, while KWP’s confident ball carrying opened up so many avenues for Saints’ final-third play.
Injuries have disrupted this link in 2021, but the news that KWP is back in contention is fantastic not just for the defensive setup – but for the balance of the attack too. Ibrahima Diallo’s return to fitness could free Stuart Armstrong up to move to the right too, meaning a return of arguably the club’s most established tandem.
Djenepo’s late cameo at right-back against Everton swung the momentum of the game into Saints’ favour and almost led to an equaliser, reminding us all of how important a lither, attacking option from that area can be to Ralph Hasenhüttl’s system.
If Walker-Peters is good to go, he’ll bring a more natural threat from that area, re-establish an all-important build-up link with Vestergaard and perhaps even resume his one-two punch combo with Armstrong. All of this will help Southampton attack with more consistency, verve and precision.
Saints aren’t the only side who like to spark attacks with big switches of play – the Blades rely on them to progress the ball too.
Wednesday’s victory over Aston Villa reaffirmed that, with the only goal of the game coming from a raking David McGoldrick switch pass to right-wing-back George Baldock, who cut in, fired goalward and had McGoldrick himself to thank for finishing off the move in the box.
McGoldrick’s fantastic at dropping in off the forward line and linking play, while Oliver Norwood – playing from the deepest position in midfield – is arguably even better at slinging the ball over long distances.
The target is one of the wing-backs, who will push aggressively into space to receive the passes. Saints’ full-backs will have to be wary of their movements, the midfield must limit the amount of time Norwood gets on the ball, and McGoldrick’s drifting runs will have to be accounted for with crisp, clear communication.
Do that, and you nullify one of the Blades’ biggest threats.