Tactical Watch: Midfield battle key to blunting Blades

By SFC Media time Fri 11 Dec Saints v Sheffield United

Sam Tighe looks ahead to the visit of Sheffield United to St Mary's in Sunday's Premier League encounter, as Tactical Watch returns, in association with Sportsbet.io.

This weekend Southampton welcome down-on-their-luck Sheffield United to St Mary’s Stadium.

Chris Wilder’s men have procured just a single point from 33 available, rooting them to the bottom of the table at what is roughly the quarter-mark of the season.

To suggest this game will come easy to Southampton would be wrong, though; the Blades have been obstinate even in defeat this term, and Ralph Hasenhüttl will have to plan for key threats and devise a way to beat a side who don’t go down easy.

Here are the three keys to victory on Sunday – and to further building on Saints’ fantastic start to the season.

Prepare to fight

Sheffield United may be on a wretched run but their games are often kept close, with eight of their 10 Premier League defeats so far decided by a single goal. They’ve racked up losses, but they’re hardly handing out points.

Teams are enjoying far more success against the Blades this season compared to last in terms of results, but facing them over 90 minutes remains a gruelling test of physicality, endurance and spirit. 

No team has spent more time drawing in the league so far than Sheffield United, meaning that all-important first goal takes on enhanced importance in their games.

Chris Wilder will deploy a workmanlike midfield three that has grit and determination, making the centre of the pitch a warzone. His strike pair will alternate between backing up into you to protect the ball and running the channels over and over to provide a direct threat. The back three will become a back five and defend the box like Trojans.

It’s not the sort of battle every team relishes, though Hasenhüttl’s Saints might well enjoy rolling their sleeves up and going toe-to-toe. This is most certainly Oriol Romeu’s happy place, while James Ward-Prowse and Stuart Armstrong will happily follow suit and get stuck in.

James Ward-Prowse
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Another playmaker from right-wing-back

Monday saw Southampton come up against Tariq Lamptey, a right-wing-back who forms a major part of Brighton & Hove Albion’s attack. His ability to weave his way down the flank with the ball and pass into the box has caused problems for many sides this season.

Saints dealt with him pretty well on the way to victory at the Amex Stadium and must be prepared to ace a similar assignment once again, as right-wing-back George Baldock represents a similar threat for Sheffield United.

Baldock’s an explosive runner who wriggles through congested areas really well, making him a natural playmaker in Wilder’s wing-back system. He’s registered the most touches of any Blade this season (594), with twice as many coming in the attacking third (294) than the defensive third (144); he’s also completed the most passes (362) and created the second-most chances (18) for the team.

Defensive work rate from Saints’ left wing will be key in working back to help Ryan Bertrand, who will look to add Baldock to the burgeoning collection of dangermen he’s nullified in 2020.

Battleship Berge

The one player who has created more shooting chances than Baldock is Sander Berge, a 6’5” man mountain of a central midfielder who can crack a midfield battle open with one purposeful stride forward.

Wilder has used him largely as a box-to-box No. 8 on the right side (although occasionally drops him in to play as the shield in front of the defence) and his ability to power through dribbles and drag his side up the pitch into attacking territory has been startling at times.

For one so big he can move rather gracefully, pass with a real deftness and operate in tight spots; perhaps his only drawback is that he’s been doing so much hard work and tough running, he has been tiring at the end of games sometimes.

Baldock’s a consistent outlet on the flank and an important cog in the team; the front two will run and press and disrupt all day; but it’s Berge who has that game-breaking side to him – the ability to produce one key moment that turns the tide – that represents the greatest threat for Saints to curtail.


Hasenhüttl can pick from fully fit squad
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