Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's Premier League trip to Liverpool in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
This weekend Southampton have the opportunity to play spoiler to Liverpool’s fading Champions League hopes – and in the process complete a league double over the Reds for the first time since 2004.
Back in January, Ralph Hasenhüttl sank to his knees in tears as the shrill blast of the referee’s final whistle echoed around St Mary’s, his team having just given everything to beat the reigning Premier League champions 1-0.
Saints have found three-point hauls hard to come by since then, with injuries curtailing momentum, but a big performance can produce another upset. Here are the three keys to achieving it.
As is often the case, Southampton project to be outnumbered in the midfield battle here. Jürgen Klopp almost always uses a 4-3-3 shape that gives him numbers in the middle, meaning Saints, who almost always use a 4-2-2-2 shape, will be a man light in there.
That’s an issue if you’re looking to put together long spells of possession, but not if you’re looking to strike fast and hard, playing through the lines and in transition.
That’s Ralph’s Saints in a nutshell, and those kinds of attacks are what the Reds have struggled with the most this season. That’s because injuries have reduced their speed and ability to cover larger spaces at the back, while the midfield haven’t tracked runners as well as before.
Kyle Walker-Peters’ ball-carrying in transition, Stuart Armstrong’s ghosting runs off the shoulder and both the channel-running and work rate of the forward pair can all play a big part in taking advantage of that.
In line with Liverpool’s twisting fortunes this season, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s form has been up and down this season – ultimately leading to a period away from Gareth Southgate’s England squad in March.
The timing of that jarred, though, as while it’s true he (along with many others) wasn’t at his best during the earlier parts of the season, it was around the March international break that Trent really started to catch fire again.
With him back in form, the Reds’ right flank becomes a real handful once again. Not only is Mohamed Salah cutting in, driving towards the penalty box and letting fly, but Trent – arguably the best crosser of a ball in the world – is teasing dangerous deliveries in and working the ball in sharp, quick patterns.
With Ryan Bertrand missing these past few weeks due to injury, Hasenhüttl has had to use innovative solutions at left-back, turning to Jack Stephens or Mohammed Salisu. Another emergency masterplan is needed here to quell Liverpool’s sharpest threat.
The word “wasteful” doesn’t come close to covering Liverpool’s attacking play in 2021. Anfield has been a fortress for years – as a 68-game unbeaten streak stretching four campaigns proved – but in 2021 things have changed.
Whether it’s a lack of fans, sheer exhaustion from the most demanding of seasons or a knock-on effect of a crippling defensive injury crisis is unclear, but the Reds’ finishing has dipped severely.
Just four goals at home in 2021 have been notched, despite taking 146 shots on goal. That’s a conversion rate of 2.7% – a world away from what you’d expect from a team boasting Salah, Sadio Mané and more. They’ve had no issue dominating games, but serious issues putting games out of their opponent’s reach.
Their last match against Newcastle United was a prime example of this: 22 shots, nine on target but just the one goal, allowing the Magpies to rally and score a 94th-minute equaliser. The week before, against Leeds United (albeit away from home) was another: 17 shots, seven on target but just one goal, and Leeds equalise in the 87th.
Liverpool’s inability to turn 1-0 into 2-0, or pull clear of teams, has bitten them repeatedly. If Saints do go a goal down, simply staying in the game may well provide them a platform to grab something in the dying minutes.