Sam Tighe identifies a potentially influential battle on Southampton's left flank in tomorrow's meeting with Brighton. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Tomorrow Southampton renew south coast rivalries with Brighton & Hove Albion.
It’s a match that often stirs up the competitive best in both and pits two managers, in Ralph Hasenhüttl vs Graham Potter, who are at opposite ends of football's varied, colourful tactical scale against one another.
The Seagulls are widely acknowledged to have got off to an excellent start to the season, tasting defeat just three times (only Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City have lost fewer) and playing some superb, slick football.
That said, it’s now been 10 games – or two and a half months – since Potter’s men last won a game. That was in late September, where they beat Leicester (and then Swansea in the cup) as they charged into the Premier League’s top four.
Expectations were perhaps set high off the mark of that initial surge, hence the recent discontent, but the drop-off is explainable: Brighton comfortably overperformed their expected Goals tally (xG) in the first four wins – an ironic situation, given they’d underperformed for the entirety of the previous season – but have since regressed in front of goal.
Last weekend’s performance against Leeds United should have brought two goals, but a combination of glaring misses and inspired goalkeeping from Illan Meslier shut them out. In midweek against West Ham, Neal Maupay and Jakub Moder missed close-range chances before the former scored by far the most difficult chance of the lot – an overhead kick!
But while the finishing may be wildly unpredictable, Brighton’s general approach to the game is anything but. No matter the opponent, venue or occasion, they seek to assert control over possession and build play from the back.
They boast the fourth-highest average possession figure (55.3%) in the Premier League this season and the fourth-highest pass completion rate (83.8%). Heavy circulation of the ball across the back three plays a big part in this; Brighton are one of the most patient teams in Europe when it comes to building attacks using specific patterns.
In the early stages of the season there was a nice balance to how they progressed the ball and attacked, spreading the load across the team relatively evenly – with perhaps Marc Cucurella taking on a bit more than the others.
But since Tariq Lamptey’s return from injury, the focus of attack has shifted noticeably to the right flank, getting him on the ball and running at opponents as often as possible. Lamptey overwhelmed Leeds left-back Junior Firpo last weekend; the Dominican was withdrawn at half-time, booked and struggling to keep pace.
With Lamptey’s criss-cross dribbling skills and Cucurella a direct, physical force on the other flank, Brighton are eager to feed the ball wide and overload those areas. The central midfielders are encouraged to drift wide and create numerical superiorities, often leaving the centre of the pitch looking a little empty.
The problem, of course, is finishing. Brighton’s continued wastefulness – or continued misfortune, depending on your outlook – allows teams to withstand barrages of possession, stay level, then counter with venom.
In November, Aston Villa showed that if you defend narrowly, pushing Brighton wide and forcing them to cross, you can get the better of them aerially in the box. That only works if your full-backs can handle the threat of Lamptey and Cucurella, though. At least guarding the centre reduces the shooting threat of Leandro Trossard and co.
That puts Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse’s tough-tackling chops into the spotlight; their discipline in front of the defence will be vital. Intriguingly, Lamptey could end up facing Kyle Walker-Peters directly – two players who compare quite closely in styles. Both have immense agility and change-of-direction pace, making it a potential highlight battle on the day.