Tactics writer Sam Tighe takes a closer look at the key areas for Southampton to exploit against Norwich City in the latest addition of Tactical Watch, in association with Utilita Energy...
Saints make their long-awaited return to Premier League action on Friday, facing Norwich City at Carrow Road in a match that will, finally, kick off the home stretch of their 2019-20 season.
An empty stadium, fastidious hygiene regimens and a curious, vacuous atmosphere await players who have grown used to performing for a gathered audience; there will be no typical matchday buzz and no noise emanating from the stands, while distancing rules on walkouts, celebrations and post-match activities will add to the unfamiliarity.
With so many unknowns surrounding the experience, it’s perhaps best to focus on a few things we do know. Here, we take a look at three keys to this game that are certain to have a telling impact on the result.
The (Lack of) Atmosphere
The Premier League returns to action having watched Germany, Spain and Italy all recommence in league or cup form before them, and there are lessons to be learned from those earlier bows.
One notable trend in the early weeks in Germany was that a sterile atmosphere worked against weaker sides far more heavily than it did the stronger ones, and that those used to being spurred on by partisan home terraces found themselves unable to reach the next gear.
Teams at or near the bottom of the table often look to latch onto an energy, a fuel source - one that a passionate crowd can provide - and across Europe we’ve seen those teams grasping at thin air.
Norwich could well suffer as a result of this; if this is to be viewed more as an away or neutral fixture, their away form this campaign (six points from 15 games, the worst in the league) doesn’t inspire confidence. Saints’ 20 points from 14 games (the seventh-best record) does, though.
Press For Success
Norwich buck a fair few stereotypes for teams down at the bottom of the league.
They’re far from your usual long-ball, direct, safety-first entity; they’re the complete opposite in fact, preferring to craft precise, passing moves starting right from the back, even in the face of intense pressing and attempted disruption.
The Canaries are truly wedded to Daniel Farke’s slower build-up methods, evidenced by an odd stat: they’re the only team in the league yet to register a goal from a counter-attacking situation (they’ve missed a few good chances, but they also break forward only to go backwards again and chain passes together). They’ve also visibly suffered at the hands of good pressing teams that have been able to ruin their rhythm.
Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Saints are one of the best pressing teams in the league and will undoubtedly fly out of the traps, looking to put pressure on the ball high up. We’ve seen Norwich play out bravely and spectacularly in these situations at times (the 3-2 win over Manchester City back in September the case-in-point), but more often than not it goes a different way.
News that central defender and captain Grant Hanley is injured could cause further uncertainty among the back line - something Saints would be wise to inspect and try to exploit from the off.
Stop the Supply to Norwich’s Terrific Trio
Teemu Pukki, Emiliano Buendía and Todd Cantwell share 17 goals and 12 assists between them in the Premier League this season. Few relegation strugglers, throughout history, can call upon a trio so productive and effervescent in front of goal.
Pressing Norwich high up is important in order to force errors and profit in an attacking sense, but it’s equally important from a defensive standpoint: The most effective way to handle Pukki, Buendía and Cantwell probably isn’t to devise the kind of complex marking scheme a theoretical physics graduate would be proud of; no, it’s to stop the supply further up, starving them of the ball and therefore chances to influence.
Buendía has every pass in the book, while Cantwell is a quality ball-carrier and difference-maker 1v1. Both look to feed Pukki’s clever runs off the centre-backs, his subtle movements hard to deal with for a full 90 minutes.
Teams who have allowed Norwich to build play have allowed these three to dictate portions of games, and that typically doesn’t end well for the opponent. Once they’re on the ball in the final third they’re difficult to deal with, so your best bet is to limit their attacking third touches - and therefore influence - as best you can by defending high up.