Tactics writer Sam Tighe, from Bleacher Report, picks out three key areas that could decide Southampton's Premier League meeting with West Brom at St Mary's...
This weekend, Southampton welcome newly-promoted West Bromwich Albion to St Mary’s and will look to compound their difficult start to life in the Premier League.
The Baggies registered a hard-fought point against Chelsea last week – albeit letting a three-goal lead slip in the process – their first of the campaign, having lost their first two fixtures.
Head coach Slaven Bilić has drastically altered his tactical approach from last season already, opting for a five-man defence instead of the usual four, which serves as both an acknowledgment of the step up in quality – and a marker for the sort of game Southampton are in for here.
Here are the three keys to defeating the Baggies and making it two wins in two for Saints.
Live and die by the set-piece
West Brom had a love-hate relationship with set pieces in 2019/20.
They scored an impressive 18 goals from these situations – 23% of their total goal tally – as two realities were hammered home consistently: first, between Semi Ajayi (5), Dara O’Shea (3) and Kyle Bartley (2), they have a cast of defenders able to consistently affect these situations; and second, the deliveries sent in by midfielder Matheus Pereira really are special.
But these same situations proved a consistent Achilles heel at the other end, too: an astonishing 36% of the goals they conceded were from set-pieces (16 in total), the second-highest percentage in the Championship (behind Leeds United).
Through three Premier League games, we’ve already seen evidence that suggests this dichotomy still exists. Pereira scored from 25 yards and Bartley tapped home a corner, while Everton and Chelsea have both punished them from free-kicks and corners after Leicester City converted two penalties against them on the opening weekend.
There’ll be an urgency in Alex McCarthy’s voice if he has to line up a wall for a free-kick that Pereira’s stood over, while James Ward-Prowse’s eyes will light up at every dead-ball situation.
The right path to attack
West Brom have shipped 11 goals in their first three Premier League games, the worst record in the division. A rough fixture list plays a part in this, as does being reduced to 10 men against Everton midway through, but the fact remains the immediate step up to the top tier has been challenging.
A trend running through those first three games has been teams finding joy on the right flank (WBA’s left).
Right-back Timothy Castagne scored for Leicester in the opener, drifting inward and heading home; Everton’s James Rodríguez pulled and probed his way to a goal and an assist; and Chelsea’s Mason Mount, operating on the flank, spun in behind multiple times to create good chances, also getting his name on the scoresheet.
In Kyle Walker-Peters and Stuart Armstrong, Saints boast superb creativity and movement on this flank. Add that to Ché Adams’s direct runs into the channel and it gives Ralph Hasenhüttl ample opportunity to continue to work this area of the pitch, with the hope of continuing this trend.
Space in behind
As a matter of course, Saints will look to try and exploit any space in behind West Brom leave – though that will likely come at a premium, if their early possession figures (35% average) and deep-set 3-4-3 formation is anything to go by.
Quick interchanges and direct runs will be key to unlocking those areas, similar to how Adams and Danny Ings worked the winning goal against Burnley.
Just as important is managing the space Saints leave in behind their own defence, and there are two particular players to key in on: Callum Robinson and Darnell Furlong.
Robinson’s a zippy, energetic forward who presses intelligently to create turnovers, then spins wide and in behind looking for space. He netted twice against Chelsea thanks to clever moments and good finishes, punishing hesitancy on the ball.
Furlong streaks forward from right-wing-back when counter-attacking opportunities arise, offering a quick outlet for distribution and an ability to carry the ball forward.
Ryan Bertrand will once again have to balance offensive and defensive duties perfectly – as he often does – while the midfield will have to shuffle over and help close off the gaps too.