Sam Tighe looks at the three keys to success for Southampton ahead of Wednesday's Premier League clash with Arsenal with the latest Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Wednesday’s fixture against Arsenal represents Southampton’s second opportunity of the 2020/21 campaign to move to the top of the Premier League table - even if it might only be for a few hours.
A brilliant run of four wins from the last six games has set them up for it, and to do so they’ll need to extract three points from a trip to Emirates Stadium. It’s been a tough place to go for Saints over the years, but it was the scene of a truly fantastic performance around this time last year, one which acted as a true platform for the fantastic 2020 Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men have enjoyed.
Here are the three keys to a performance, a win and - if results go their way - a temporary berth at the top of the table!
Defend those crosses!
Heading into gameweek 13, no Premier League team has crossed more times this season than Arsenal. The count stands at 203, making them a surprise lead in this category given the lack of a standout, physical striker in their ranks.
Mikel Arteta recently insisted this approach would lead to goals - ”it’s maths, pure maths, and it will happen” - but while Alexandre Lacazette’s latched onto a few low balls into the box in the last few games, no goals from these scenarios have materialised yet.
Concerningly for the Gunners, their open play goal threat has diminished in line with the spike in crosses. The central midfield pair consistently funnel the ball wide rather than try to feed passes through tight spots in the centre.
That may limit Southampton’s opportunities to create turnovers while pressing the midfield - particularly given Mohamed Elneny ranks as the most accurate passer under pressure this season - and shifts the onus to the defence: block the crosses, or clear them effectively.
Arsenal will send plenty in, so it promises to be a busy evening of headed clearances for Jannik Vestergaard, Jan Bednarek and the crew.
Beware the youthful surge
A combination of poor form leading into this game, a cohort of impressive performances from younger players in the Europa League and first-team suspensions to deal with could see Mikel Arteta shake up his XI quite significantly for Wednesday’s game.
Granit Xhaka and Héctor Bellerín are both suspended while Thomas Partey is injured, forcing fresh faces into central midfield and the defensive line at least. Other changes could occur too, in response to the form the likes of Emile Smith Rowe and Joe Willock have shown on Thursdays. There’s also scope for Nicolas Pépé to return following the completion of his own three-game ban.
All in all, it wouldn’t surprise to see four or five players brought into the team - and every one of them will have a point to prove, or a place to stake a claim for. We could even see Cédric given a first Premier League outing of the campaign against his former club.
Caught cold on the counter
Arsenal have lost four Premier League home games in a row and are winless in five in the league. No two games in football are ever the same, but a clear trend has pervaded recent performances: the Gunners are getting stung by quick counter-attacks and transitions fairly regularly.
Aston Villa, Wolves and Tottenham have all beaten them recently, and all three sides have scored goals as a result of being able to carry the ball long distances through midfield to set up attacks on the counter. These attacks are often 3v2 or 4v2 in favour of the opponent, with Arsenal committing too many men ahead of the ball and failing to recover.
Quick distribution from Alex McCarthy could help set up similar scenarios for Southampton, with Ché Adams, Danny Ings, Theo Walcott, Stuart Armstrong and Nathan Redmond all highly capable, fast ball carriers. If McCarthy can claim crosses and quickly recycle play to the feet of one of his attackers, the game will open up for Saints in the same way it did for Villa, Wolves and Spurs.