Tactical Watch: Saints chasing five in a row

By SFC Media time Wed 29 Jan Liverpool v Saints
Photo by Matt Watson

On Saturday, Southampton will target a fifth successive top-flight away win for the first time in the club's history. Standing in their way are runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool, as Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe looks at where Saints can potentially exploit the newly-crowned world champions...

This weekend Southampton will launch the 25th attempt to beat Liverpool in the Premier League this season.

Thus far the Reds have batted every challenge away, dropping just two points in the process, and represent the most formidable team in world football right now.

Ordinarily, taking on opposition of such stature would be a daunting task, but given the confidence pumping through the Saints’ ranks, leading to a rich vein of form of their own, it’ll be a challenge the players will be eager to get stuck into.

And who could blame them if they fancy their chances? Southampton have won four on the spin away from home, earning maximum points hauls at Stamford Bridge and the King Power Stadium during that span, and boast the joint-second-best record in the league over the last six games (13 points from 18 available).

But even with those facts and figures imbuing their confidence levels, the game plan is going to have to be flawless.

What Ralph Hasenhüttl dials up on the tactics board will have to nullify Liverpool’s many threats whilst keying in on their select few weaknesses – something which is much easier to say than actually do.

Proactivity off the ball

Boldness and bravery off the ball, a willingness to press, a system designed to man-mark: things that every team would love to do against Liverpool, but some simply aren’t built for it. 

Luckily, Southampton are.

The Saints’ biggest trump card over the last two months has been their aggression and willingness to challenge opponents high up the pitch. There’ll be no change of tact at Anfield, no matter how risky that might seem, as disrupting the Reds in build-up stages is vital to keeping their attacking threats at bay.

Pressuring the central midfielders is the easiest way to throw a spanner in the works, as stemming the supply to the forwards is easier than attempting to stop them from impacting once they’ve got the ball. 

There’s a chance Sadio Mané misses the game due to injury, but there’s still Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah to deal with; allow them touches of the ball at will and you’re in trouble.

That said, the most important players to pressure are the full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. They are the Reds’ chief creators, as Jürgen Klopp’s conservative midfield and high, narrow forward line creates space for them to surge into.

Without tipping too heavily into cautionary or negative strategies, it may be wise to field a left and right-midfielder capable of marking them and preventing them from running into space and/or crossing. Stuart Armstrong seems tailor-made for this, as does James Ward-Prowse – if a relocation from central midfield for him could be justified.

Alexander-Arnold is the deadliest crosser in the league, while Robertson’s penetrative runs can destroy marking schemes and cause panic. Keep both at arm’s length.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 17: Danny Ings of Southampton looks to get on the end of a cross during the Premier League match between Southampton FC and Liverpool FC at St Mary's Stadium on August 17, 2019 in Southampton, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images)
Ex-Liverpool man Danny Ings came close to rescuing a point against his former club in August

Hit the channels, test Alexander-Arnold

As good as Southampton’s pressing game is, Liverpool’s is probably better. Years of practice has seen it develop and evolve into something close to perfect; it’s not as aggressive as it used to be, but it is more efficient and leads to many attacks breaking down.

Saints won’t shy away from trying to play through it at times – and rightly so, given their own prowess in ball progression. 

But the best route to goal against the Reds is almost always to go a little longer, a little more direct, and test two specific areas: the flank that Alexander-Arnold mans, and the channel just inside of him.

As fantastic as TAA is, he’s still a defensive weak point. Some claim that’s a thing of the past, but there have been games this season where he’s really struggled against speed – Crystal Palace, for example.

Part of it is that his job is to attack, so he moves forward and leaves space. Part of it is that he’s susceptible in one-on-one situations and can be turned and twisted. 

Having a fast, direct player that can line up against him, plus another one operating up front who can run the channel between TAA and the right-centre-back, is key. Nathan Redmond, Shane Long, Ché Adams, Michael Obafemi...again, Saints have the personnel for this.

To simplify things even further, perhaps introduce one rule: when attacking, just target the bit of pitch that Virgil van Dijk isn’t in, and your chances of success increase dramatically.

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