Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe assesses the different tactical approaches Ralph Hasenhüttl may adopt for Southampton's trip to Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League on Saturday...
Unpredictability can be one of football’s great trump cards. If you don’t know what your opponent is going to do, it’s extremely difficult to plan appropriately, making sides who change their look frequently very dangerous indeed.
Pity Brighton & Hove Albion manager Graham Potter, then, as he tries to wrap his head around exactly what kind of Saints side he’s set to face this weekend. Which formation, which personnel, what approach?
Ralph Hasenhüttl hasn’t garnered the results he would have wanted from the Premier League’s opening stretch, but he has succeeded in making his team incredibly difficult to second guess.
He’s used two different game plans in the two games so far, opting for a 5-2-3 shape against Burnley with a two-man midfield, then flipping the triangle for Liverpool, reverting to a more reactive 5-3-2 alignment.
Then there’s the looming spectre of the 4-2-2-2 shape – the one used so successfully at RB Leipzig, and trialled sporadically last season at St Mary’s – which could very well come into play any time now that centre-back Kevin Danso is through the door.
Hasenhüttl himself has to choose between the three systems this weekend in anticipation of Brighton & Hove Albion.
Their approach to football under Potter is drastically different to that of Chris Hughton’s tenure, and that has to factor into the decision.
Their average possession figures for the two games played (53.1%) is in stark contrast to the 2018/19 season average (44.1%), highlighting the difference in approach.
The Seagulls have steered away from their direct style of last season, instead keeping it on the deck far more.
They’ve also switched from a back four to a back five, utilising three centre-backs and asking them to recycle possession patiently, waiting for gaps in midfield to open.
Despite spending north of £20million on Adam Webster from Bristol City this summer, Potter has so far stuck with last season’s combination of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy, with incumbent Dan Burn filling out the centre-back corps.
The latter two recycle the ball into midfield and back out again in an attempt to free up Dunk, at the centre of the back three, to receive, look up, and split the opponent with a cutting pass.
This directly led to a Neal Maupay goal against Watford on the opening weekend and looked a threat against West Ham too.
Dunk is seeking to find the two floating playmakers stationed between the lines, so they can turn and attack, or thread a striker’s run.
It’s a tactic that gets new man Leandro Trossard in good positions and finds Maupay’s movements – but marginalises Glenn Murray to an extent.
sam tigheit is highly likely hasenhüttl will test exactly how comfortable brighton's back three are on the ball under pressure.
Dunk and co. have been quite successful in slicing teams open from the back thus far – a winner against West Ham would have been deserved – but it’s important to note the backline haven’t been pressurised on the ball yet, both Watford and West Ham sitting off them quite passively.
That’s about to change.
It’s highly likely Hasenhüttl will test exactly how comfortable Brighton’s back three are on the ball under pressure, and that could inform the intended shape from his end: if he’s aggressive he can field three front men, like against Burnley, to match up one-on-one with each and try to force mistakes; if he’s less gung-ho, he could use three in midfield to block the lanes and prevent Dunk threading passes.
The first option is certainly more Ralph. In Nathan Redmond, Danny Ings and Ché Adams he has three willing pressers who can force and punish mistakes. Moussa Djenepo adds a fresh pair of legs to that effort too.
There might also be an element of wanting to start on the front foot, to approach the game in a positive way. He won’t be too concerned by results so far and rightly so – the xG (expected goals) values suggest Burnley (1.09-0.91) and Liverpool (1.89-1.51) should both have been beaten – but the sooner the 2019/20 points tally is up and running the better.
If we know Hasenhüttl, he’ll go for the throat.