Adam Leitch, formerly chief sports writer at the Southern Daily Echo, previews a crunch clash for Bournemouth, as Southampton visit the Vitality Stadium hunting a ninth Premier League away win of the season. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Utilita Energy...
It’s a role reversal for Saints and Bournemouth just over a year since Ralph Hasenhüttl and his team were able to celebrate Premier League survival on their home turf.
The exciting 3-3 draw that was played out on a sunny April afternoon at St Mary’s in 2019 gave Saints the point they needed to secure their safety after a hard-fought relegation battle and allowed the players and staff the chance to soak it all up and celebrate with the fans.
Bournemouth, in contrast, were already safely ensconced in mid-table and looking forward to their summer break and another season of Premier League football.
With two games left of this truncated campaign, it’s Saints safe in mid-table and looking to next season while Bournemouth find themselves deep in a relegation dogfight.
For the Cherries, the maths is simple – they have to take three points on Sunday night to give themselves a fighting chance of survival.
Saints refreshed while Cherries miss Aké
While a 1-1 home draw with Brighton may not seem like the most scary result to take into a game, Saints will be refreshed and raring to go when they face the Cherries.
With three games in a week, Hasenhüttl used Thursday night’s game against the Seagulls to rest several star players and blood some youngsters.
That means the first team will be back on the pitch and ready to go having had almost a week between matches. Three of the first choice back four who were left out of the starting line-up in midweek are all expected to return, as well as Stuart Armstrong.
Bournemouth, in contrast, will be missing their best player and defensive lynchpin Nathan Aké through injury. It’s a huge blow for a team who have conceded more goals than all but two sides in the Premier League this season.
Eddie Howe has given himself a few options to freshen things up after their creditable performance and 2-1 defeat to Manchester City, but when you consider that, as well as Aké, the Cherries are missing Chris Mepham, Charlie Daniels and Simon Francis, while Adam Smith is also a doubt, it’s a tale of defensive woe at just the wrong time.
Howe brave are Bournemouth?
Eddie Howe has become a much-loved Premier League manager for his determination to stick to his footballing philosophies and allow Bournemouth to play an attractive style of football, but it hasn’t really paid off this season and results have taken a downward trend.
Howe has reacted by switching formations for games where he wants the team to dig in a little more, going from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1. Nothing unusual about that you might say – most managers shut up shop from time to time, especially against the league’s big guns, and make themselves hard to break down.
The question for Howe is what he does against an in-form Saints side in a game his team cannot afford to lose?
Given they really need to win does he throw caution to the wind and go for broke, at least knowing if it goes wrong they have done it on their terms? Does he go cautious and try to frustrate Saints and patiently wait for a chance or consider a more attacking switch if it’s tight late on? Or try the trickiest task of all and marry the two together?
These are the moments that define a manager.
Battle of the tinkermen
Hasenhüttl and Howe have a lot of respect for each other. They are both bright young managers who are tactically astute and have their teams well drilled to switch tactics and formations mid-match.
The battle between the two of them has been like a chess game in the past, with one manager making a move before the other responds.
Indeed, the average game between the two sides has more formation changes in 90 minutes than some top-flight managers make in an entire season.
In the 3-3 draw last April, Howe made a brave decision and moved from a back five to back four after just 15 minutes, knowing Hasenhüttl couldn’t match them up due to a lack of personnel and forced the Saints manager to get creative.
In the reverse of this fixture earlier in the season, Hasenhüttl was leading the changes, switching from a back four to a back five and returning to a back four all before the second half got underway.
These are two managers who are thinkers, schemers and plotters, and they relish the tactical battle in the technical area.