Tactics writer Sam Tighe, from Bleacher Report, analyses the contribution of one of Southampton's unsung heroes who has come to the fore in recent weeks...
As the wider world have caught on to Southampton’s incredible run of form – a run which has seen them beat Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City in an unbeaten stretch of six – several of Saints’ star performers have rightly been singled out for praise.
Danny Ings, whose 14 goals see him occupy second in the Premier League scoring charts, four ahead of Mohamed Salah and three ahead of Harry Kane, is being pitched for England’s Euro 2020 squad.
James Ward-Prowse, whose engine never stops running and whose set-piece prowess continues to make the difference, is realising his great potential in the eyes of many.
Ralph Hasenhüttl’s turnaround in fortunes hasn’t escaped focus either, his ability to breathe life back into the team noted across the country. The list goes on
But one player whose contributions continue to fly under the radar is Stuart Armstrong. Despite the brilliance he’s shown, the versatility he’s offered and the dependability that has always been part and parcel of his game, he’s perhaps been overlooked.
That surely won’t continue for much longer.
You can essentially split Southampton’s season into two, BC/AD-style, at the juncture where Southampton travelled to the Emirates Stadium in November to play Arsenal.
That was the day that everything changed; fresh off a November international break in which Saints reforged their identity, they pressed the living hell out of the Gunners and were extremely unfortunate not to win.
Ings sparkled that day, Ward-Prowse and Pierre Emile-Højbjerg put in mountainous shifts and Alex McCarthy sprung to the rescue on occasion. All four drew deserved plaudits.
And true to form, Armstrong was also integral to that performance – though in a much more understated way. His interpretive role on the right of midfield allowed Saints to switch between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 looks in their formation, joining up the lines, offering width when required or tucking in to block the midfield.
It’s one of the more subtle parts of a system that is swarming all over teams right now, praised by few but valued by the ones that matter. That performance against Arsenal cemented his spot in the side, and his last four Premier League starts (Aston Villa, Chelsea, Spurs and Leicester) have all been wins.
The Scot has become Hasenhüttl’s version of Koke, of Atlético Madrid and Spain – a central midfielder by trade, but intelligent enough to hold a hybrid role that splits duties and allows the formation to shift with the flow of the game.
He also reminds of Koke in his dogged work ethic, off-the-ball impact and clever touches down the flank. He’s hardly the team’s main source of creativity, but he does chime in with important passes and flicks each week.
Armstrong’s rise has forced a glut of attacking talents to spend more time on the bench than they’d like. Hasenhüttl spends a portion of each week figuring out which of Sofiane Boufal, Moussa Djenepo, Ché Adams and Shane Long must miss out on the XI.
Three of those four are full internationals, all of them cost eight figures. None command an automatic place in the team due to steep competition for places, led by Armstrong.