Tactical Watch: Three or four at the back?


Adam Leitch assesses the dilemmas facing managers Ralph Hasenhüttl and Graham Potter ahead of Southampton’s trip to Brighton in the Premier League. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with

The battle for south coast superiority has really hotted up again this season and the face-off between Brighton and Saints at the Amex Stadium will go a long way to deciding who has the bragging rights come the end of the campaign.

This will be a match between two fairly evenly matched teams with exciting managers working with limited budgets but to good effect.

Both Ralph Hasenhüttl and Graham Potter, the former Saints player and now Seagulls boss, are students of the game and deep thinkers. Expect tactical tinkering, in-game changes aplenty and interaction from the dugout as this game hinges on the managers as well as the players themselves.

Potter and Hasenhüttl have cleverly developed options for their teams during their spells in charge, ensuring their players are comfortable with different shapes and have the ability to flex during games when required.

Both Brighton and Saints have played with three centre-halves and a back four over the last handful of matches.

Both managers will likely want to match up the other one, so there is an interesting game of stick or twist to be played before the teamsheets are even submitted.

In the reverse fixture in December, a 1-1 draw at St Mary's where Brighton equalised in the 98th minute, it was Saints who started with a back four and Brighton with three centre-halves.

Saints tried to exploit this by getting between and down the sides of the defensive trio. Though their goal from Armadno Broja owed a little to a Brighton error, their vulnerability with three centre-halves was also somewhat exposed as Nathan Redmond’s cushioned header was all that was needed to find the space Broja required to get the ball down. The rest was all about his clinical finishing in the box.

Both teams are incredibly solid in the middle of the park. Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse are about as good a pairing as you will find outside of the very best sides in the division. For Brighton, Yves Bissouma is in great form as the lynchpin.

In their impressive win against Tottenham, Brighton also showed how they can vary their press depending on their opposition.

Rather than sitting back against strong opposition and soaking up any pressure, they proved they view themselves as upwardly mobile and competitive regardless of who they are facing as they pressed aggressively.

The tactic was designed to stop the ball getting into Harry Kane – and it worked.

In a tough run of games, they went again with a back three against Manchester City on Wednesday night and a solid bank of three in front, closing the gaps for City to play in. Though Pep Guardiola’s team ran out 3-0 winners, they were frustrated for longer than usual.

Saints actually sat off more than usual to take on Arsenal last weekend, but also to good effect as they grabbed three points. This may also, of course, have been something of a reaction to the 6-0 defeat to Chelsea.

But while that result gave confidence in playing three centre-halves, the defeat at Burnley may well have had the opposite effect. Again, it leaves both managers potentially second guessing each other. Will one team set out to be the aggressors, both, or neither?

One thing is for sure, the battle to be the best on the south coast is not just reserved for on the pitch, but also in the dugout.