With Southampton preparing to return to Premier League action at Bournemouth this weekend, tactics writer Sam Tighe picks out three key battles that could swing the balance in Saints' favour...
Southampton make the short trip along the south coast to play AFC Bournemouth this weekend. Eddie Howe’s men are in excellent form, winning three of their last four games, and while that’s thanks to some super team performances, select individuals are absolutely killing it too.
Here, we pick out three of those players and identify the Southampton counterpart, setting up head-to-head battles that, if won, can swing this contest into Saints’ favour.
TO CREATE AND SCORE: Ings vs King
Callum Wilson’s three goals and four assists from eight Premier League appearances singles him out as an obvious danger man, but Danny Ings is more comparable to Josh King in style and position.
Both forwards are adept at dropping in between the lines, linking with the midfielders and creating chances as well as finishing them off.
You’d label neither a pure striker as they contribute so much more, providing a vital conduit for the ball as it transitions from defence to attack.
King’s output (four goals, one assist) is marginally better than Ings’s (three goals) this season, though three-quarters of the Norwegian’s strikes have come from the penalty spot. They’re performing similar in-possession roles for their teams in similar 4-4-1-1 setups.
They’re about as directly comparable as two forwards can possibly be, so it’ll be fascinating to see who can exert more influence on the game.
TO SET THE TONE: Højbjerg vs Cook
Lewis Cook started the campaign out of Howe’s first XI and has been forced to re-earn his spot. Strong performances in the cup led to a chance in the Premier League against Crystal Palace, and from here he should become a mainstay in the midfield.
His defensive work is pretty limited – 0.5 tackles and 1.4 interceptions per 90 minutes isn’t a flashy stat line – as he leaves a lot of the dirty work to his more combative partner, Jefferson Lerma.
Instead it’s a calmness on the ball and under pressure that he brings to this Cherries outfit, his tempo-setting ability crucial to their possession style.
It’s an absolute expectation on home turf that Bournemouth control the flow of the game, and it’s up to opposing central midfielders to destroy the rhythm and set their own tone.
Højbjerg’s voracious style profiles extremely well for this role; not only can he conduct periods of pressure for Saints, but he’ll pressure the Cherries into errors in the centre and disrupt their plans.
TO ADD AN EXTRA EDGE: Redmond vs Fraser
David Brooks has hit the headlines two weeks straight, netting in consecutive games and drawing praise from every angle, but it’s his wing partner Ryan Fraser who has had the more sustained, positive impact on Bournemouth’s season so far.
He’s created the fourth-most chances in the Premier League (21), behind only Willian, David Silva and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Three of those have been converted into assists, and he matches that tally for goals too.
Cutting in off the left flank, he doesn’t jink or slide, he barrels. A low-to-the-ground, powerful runner, he turns quickly and gets shots off from difficult angles.
There isn’t a striker out there who doesn’t appreciate help from his midfield, and Ings’s own trusted helper, Nathan Redmond, must endeavour to outshine Fraser’s influence from the wings on Saturday.
He’s looked bright and energised this season, his crossing improved and his work rate unmatched, and he’ll come face to face with 33-year-old centre-back Simon Francis on Saturday – a matchup he can easily win.