Looking for back-to-back home victories, Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe identifies three key areas that could decide Saturday's meeting between Southampton and Newcastle United in the Premier League...
This weekend’s tussle with Newcastle United offers Saints the chance to put a true wedge between themselves and the relegation zone.
A win and three points would take them to 37 points and within touching distance of the fabled 40-point mark—the typical milestone for Premier League safety.
With just 10 games left to play each team’s style and tendencies should be set in stone, but recently Newcastle have tweaked their approach and formation, giving Ralph Hasenhüttl some fresh challenges to consider.
Match speed with speed
There’s been a slight shift in the way Newcastle have been playing recently. They’ve moved from a back three to a back four and are playing a more assertive on-the-ball style - something at odds with their typical approach.
Their season average of 40.2% possession per game is the lowest in the league, pointing to a more passive unit generally, but of late they’ve stepped that up.
Still, despite that change, their favoured route of attack is a little more direct, utilising the speed of Miguel Almirón and particularly Allan Saint-Maximin.
The latter averages an impressive 4.3 dribbles per game, second only to Wilfried Zaha (4.6) and Wolverhampton steam train Adama Traore (5.2) in the Premier League. His season-high of dribbles in a game (10) came against Southampton in the earlier fixture this season.
They’ll give him the ball in a deep position and ask him to transition them from defence to attack by weaving forward. This tactic is naturally hit or miss - even the best can’t just dribble around everyone all the time - and two things can affect its usefulness: Whether Saint-Maximin finds his groove, and who his marker is for the day.
Saints can only control the second part, the marker, and can look to other teams for clues on how best to lineup. Teams who have succeeded in stymieing Saint-Maximin have tended to match speed vs. speed - Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang chased back regularly when Arsenal beat them in February, while Frederic Guilbert matched him stride for stride in November.
Pressure the playmakers
Among Newcastle’s quietly impressive January transfer haul was a loan for Nabil Bentaleb, the former Tottenham midfielder who has most recently been at Schalke 04.
His addition gives manager Steve Bruce two deep-lying playmakers to choose from, the other being Jonjo Shelvey, who have similar profiles: happy to dictate play, good range of passing, but also in need of defensive help alongside them - which is where Isaac Hayden or one of the Longstaff brothers come in.
The easiest way to stop Saint-Maximin from hitting his stride, or Almirón latching onto through-balls and turning on the afterburners, is to stop the source. Whichever of Shelvey or Bentaleb plays will be that source.
Allow them to lift their heads and play a raking pass and you’ll quickly find yourself turned, chasing and recovering. Subject them to pressure - something Hasenhüttl will no doubt encourage anyway - and you maroon Newcastle’s two most potent attacking weapons.
Prepare to be patient
The Magpies may have pruned their feathers when it comes to an on-the-ball approach, but when it comes to defending the same old coat remains.
PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) is a metric which measures how disruptive you are in breaking up opponents’ sequences of play. The higher the number, the more passive and willing to sit deep you likely are.
Newcastle’s PPDA is 18.41, the highest score not just in the Premier League, but the entirety of Europe’s top five leagues. For comparison, Southampton’s is 8.73, the 14th-lowest in Europe and the lowest in England. This is a true clash of defensive styles.
It means that Saints are going to be faced with long periods of possession, full courtesy of their opponents, if the initial, quick thrust forward doesn’t come off. Having the right mindset is key in this scenario; patient play, working the ball around with pace and triggering the openings when they crop up, not taking wild shots from distance.
Drawing fouls and set pieces, so that James Ward-Prowse can take aim from 20-25 yards, may also prove a shortcut to a breakthrough.