Tactical Watch: Saints back on track

By SFC Media time Fri 06 Dec Newcastle v Saints
Photo by Matt Watson

Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe explains how Southampton ended a seven-month wait for a home win with two in the space of five days...

By far the best home performance of the 2019/20 season brought Southampton a richly deserved three points against Norwich City, making it seven from a possible nine in the last three games.

All of a sudden, the indifferent stream of October results feels aeons ago, as the Saints go marching up the table and out of the relegation zone, confidence brimming and goals flowing.

If there was indeed a watershed moment that sparked this upturn in performance, it no doubt took place during the November international break.

Since returning from it, Southampton have drawn away to Arsenal and beaten both Watford and Norwich at home, changing the season’s outlook and lifting chins upward.

What’s changed?

By comparing that set of three games to the others played this season, it’s easy to identify what’s changed: Southampton have returned to their roots, pressing hard in advanced areas and playing brave football with full commitment.

“We kept them far away from our goal and won a lot of balls early,” Ralph Hasenhüttl said after the Norwich victory. “We believed in ourselves and put everything on the pitch to win this game. We rediscovered our identity and how we want to play.”

He said similar things after the Watford win and the Arsenal draw. The attitude has undoubtedly changed, his message and methods landing in a way that has unlocked fresh levels from his players.

The statistics back up the eye test, too. There’s an advanced metric called PPDA (passes per defensive action) which measures how active a team is in disrupting its opponents, and Southampton boast the third-best score in the Premier League (9.4 passes allowed per action), only a little shy of Leicester City (8.3) and, amazingly, a smidge ahead of Manchester City (9.6).

Saints’ new shape

The last three performances have been crucial in improving that number, and it’s notable that it’s been done from a different base shape. 

Southampton came out of the November international break in a 4-4-2 formation that has distinct echoes of the one Hasenhüttl used at RB Leipzig. It has brought immediate success.

“We have now found a shape and a core that is creating automatisms and habits together,” the Austrian said on Wednesday night. By automatisms, he means auto-responses to pressing triggers and in-game situations. Or, put simply, his style of football.

Neither Norwich or Arsenal could handle Saints’ co-ordinated press, while Watford simply sat in for periods, hoping to absorb rather than try and play through it. Saints look a rapid attacking force again, hungry for turnovers and dangerous in the final third.

The switch to the 4-4-2 shape has been key to this uplift. It asks for six mobile, energetic, tactically intelligent players to man the midfield and forward lines, pressing high to protect the defence and create chances in advanced areas.

The true beauty of it is it places Danny Ings, Nathan Redmond and Moussa Djenepon – three of Saints’ biggest difference-makers in attack – in their natural slots, therefore getting the best from them. 

Then Hasenhüttl can rotate others into the side around them, keeping the base strategy intact but adding elements of freshness too.

A permanent pivot to this formation has long felt as though it’s in the works, and if this is it – if this is the run – then we could be on the precipice of Saints 2.0 under Hasenhüttl. 

Fitting, perhaps, that it comes on the anniversary week of his appointment as manager.

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