Guest columnist Sam Tighe previews the visit of Newcastle United to St Mary's in Southampton's latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Gameweek 8 hands Southampton an opportunity to go top of the Premier League – yes, top – with a win over Newcastle United on Friday night.
Doing so would extend Saints’ unbeaten streak to six and cement what has been a very strong start to the campaign, making good on the foundations laid down during the June-July climax of the 2019/20 season.
Standing in the way of that is a Magpies side who have proven either difficult or downright obstinate at times, so here are the three keys to ensuring the Saints continue to march on.
Be ready for... anything
In terms of tactical setups, Newcastle stand the polar opposite to Southampton in one critical way: whereas Saints have a clearly defined system and rhythm – divined from Ralph Hasenhüttl’s automatisms – the Magpies are a giant question mark heading into every game.
Steve Bruce has used five different formations already this season, chopping and changing constantly in reply to up-and-down results and a litany of injury issues.
He’s fielded 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 5-4-1 shapes and against Wolves and Everton rolled out a 5-3-2. The personnel has changed with it; whereas eight Saints players have started all seven games so far, only four from Newcastle have.
It means Southampton are going to have to be ready for, well, pretty much anything. Bruce may begin with the same setup that’s earned four points in the last two games, but there’s no guarantee.
They beat Burnley in October, then changed shape for the next game; the same happened in September after they beat Morecambe 7-0 in the cup.
Stop Allan Saint-Maximin
Last week, Southampton overcame an Aston Villa side who have a clear attacking, creative focal point in Jack Grealish.
That’s good preparation for Friday, as they’ll face a similarly distorted opponent in Newcastle, whose own version of Grealish is Allan Saint-Maximin.
The Frenchman’s among the best in the business when it comes to dribbling and carrying the ball. He sits second in the league in dribbles completed per game (3.7), often dragging Newcastle out of defensive positions on his own.
He’s always been a slippery customer, one who is near-impossible to stop on his day due to his combination of footwork and flat-out speed, so it’s been no surprise to see him rise to the position of chief threat in black and white.
If Newcastle’s last two games are anything to go by, ASM will operate in a free central role off striker Callum Wilson, given license to drift.
While not seemingly 100% comfortable with that role – he’s almost always been a wide man – it gives him the chance to commit opponents one vs one and burst into space.
A combined effort, from all four central players, will be needed to stymie his influence.
Flex the depth
“Yes, we won this game [Aston Villa] but we paid a high price,” Hasenhüttl told the media on Wednesday.
That price came in the form of injuries to Danny Ings, Ryan Bertrand, Jan Bednarek and Ibrahima Diallo, which are added to an existing list containing Jake Vokins, Will Smallbone and Mohamed Salisu.
It means Saints will need to reconfigure for the visit of Newcastle and most likely try a player or two in a new position for the first time.
Bertrand and Vokins’s injuries may well necessitate Kyle Walker-Peters moving to left-back. It’s a position he knows extremely well, having played it extensively for Tottenham and England’s youth sides, but it’s not one he’s taken up in red and white yet.
Ings’s influence up top is impossible to replace, but Hasenhüttl at least has options. Shane Long and Michael Obafemi can step in, as can Theo Walcott – though he is yet to play in the strike partnership since his return.
Nathan Redmond’s an interesting option here too; his skillset perhaps most closely resembles Ings’s as he’s so capable of operating between the lines, linking play and scoring from outside the box, and he has operated centrally, just off the striker, to good effect in the past.
Saints’ depth and flexibility will be tested harshly here. Rise to the challenge… and top spot is there for the taking.