Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe dissects Southampton's impressive performance at Arsenal, and explains the dilemmas facing Ralph Hasenhüttl ahead of back-to-back home games in the Premier League...
“It’s a draw that feels like a loss.” An overused, clichéd phrase in football, certainly, but one that on occasion rings heart-wrenchingly true.
Last Saturday represented one of those occasions for Southampton.
As Alexandre Lacazette prodded home a 96th-minute equaliser for Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, heads fell into hands in the away end.
Those present had just watched their troops dominate a top-six club from beginning to end, do more than enough to win the game, but fall foul of some very cruel margins.
In that moment, it can be tough to reach out and find the positives—a truth exemplified by none other than Ralph Hasenhüttl, who stood on the pitch, head in hands, mirroring the away fans’ disbelief – but a more sober post-match analysis reveals so much for the club to be excited about moving forward.
Back to basics
“What I was really impressed about was the way we wanted to play, believing and being on the front foot,” Hasenhüttl said after the 2-2 draw.
“We spoke before the game about what we [will] try to rebuild about this game, and go back to our habits and our fundamentals, our basics, and the team showed from the first moment that they believe in what they are doing.”
By “basics, habits and fundamentals,” Hasenhüttl means playing a brave, aggressive off-the-ball style. It’s his trademark, what he preaches, and Saints’ grip over it has slipped as the season has worn on, negatively impacting performance and results in the process.
Whatever form last week’s introspection took clearly worked wonders; Southampton were revved up, willing to press Arsenal high and force errors, and play straight through them from deep when the opportunity arose.
A bold strategy on a regular day, but when facing the speed of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé? It takes nerve and steel to do that—two gritty qualities Southampton must take into their two successive home games coming up, beginning with Watford on Saturday.
Danny Ings’s red-hot form
Ings’s excellence in front of goal has arguably been Southampton’s biggest positive of late, his last seven Premier League games returning five goals. This following a brace and man of the match performance against Portsmouth in the south coast derby, the man’s on fire.
His level of effectiveness has probably flown under the wider radar, but Ings has quietly clawed his way to level with Mohamed Salah in the goalscoring charts and faces two prime opportunities to add to his overall tally of six in the next two home games.
Usually, teams fighting for points lack this kind of player, but Southampton find themselves in a position of strength here, able to call on a forward most other managers in the league would embrace.
The 27-year-old has always felt like a good mesh with Hasenhüttl, his relentless energy and clever link-up play complimenting his finishing skills to form a player that suits the intended style to the ground.
But never has Ings scored with this kind of frequency while Hasenhüttl has been at the helm, and the sooner Southampton can tally up Ings goals with three-point hauls, the better.
EVERYONE is contributing
Hasenhüttl’s team selection for Watford promises to be rather difficult, as he’s hardly struggling for players prepared to fight for the cause and make an impact.
He has a dilemma in midfield, not only with regard to what shape he uses, but which personnel he brings in. Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse, two stars of last season’s survival campaign, were predictably excellent against Arsenal, but so were fresher faces like Stuart Armstrong.
Then Sofiane Boufal and Moussa Djenepo entered the fray late on at the Emirates and combined so effectively, it further adds to the headache.
We saw a back four against Arsenal for the first time in some time, and while the boss admitted it was partly to spring a surprise on their opponents, its effectiveness has likely given him food for thought moving forward. That in turn has an effect on who he selects to play.
Up front Michael Obafemi’s fire has been stoked, while Shane Long came on to good effect on Saturday. He, like so many others, will be pushing all the way for a start this week.
Hasenhüttl can only pick 11.