Tactical Watch: Stop the set-piece kings

By SFC Media time Mon 28 Dec Saints v West Ham United

Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's last Premier League outing of 2020 – the visit of West Ham to St Mary's – in his latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.

It’s about that time of the year when the football simply doesn’t stop. 

Just 75 hours after Southampton kicked off their Boxing Day draw with Fulham at Craven Cottage, they’ll welcome West Ham to St Mary’s as the games start to pile up. 

Others around the division have it even tougher – just 48 hours separate some gruelling fixtures – and with temperatures plummeting it makes for a tough job in preparing physically and tactically for matches.

Still, Ralph Hasenhüttl will have kept a beady eye on West Ham over December and know what to expect from this tussle. Here are the three keys to claiming a first victory over the Hammers since 2017.

Relish the gritty midfield battle

West Ham have long been able to call upon a stable of exciting attacking playmakers, adding Jarrod Bowen and Saïd Benrahma to the likes of Pablo Fornals, Andriy Yarmolenko and Manuel Lanzini in the last 12 months.

But unlike previous regimes, that’s not what defines David Moyes’s iteration of the Hammers. Instead, it’s their tough-tackling, physical, multi-functional central midfield that offers a real challenge to all who oppose it.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Ibrahima Diallo of Southampton during the Premier League match between Fulham and Southampton at Craven Cottage on December 26, 2020 in London, England. The match will be played without fans, behind closed doors as a Covid-19 precaution. (Photo by Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images)
Ibrahima Diallo made his first Saints start at Fulham in the absence of Oriol Romeu

Tomáš Souček and Declan Rice form a formidable shield in the centre, with each capable of doing a bit of everything. Souček’s great in both boxes, while Rice’s year-on-year improvement has seen him become a good ball-carrier and passer as well as a physical force.

It’s the sort of battle Southampton will be delighted to welcome Oriol Romeu back from suspension for, and the kind James Ward-Prowse has come to love. This will be physical, gritty and rewarding for whoever comes out on top.

Set-piece perfection

No team in the Premier League has scored more goals from set-pieces than West Ham this season. Souček’s last-gasp header against Brighton & Hove Albion took their tally to eight for the campaign and once again underlined how distinct their threat is from these situations.

Souček is a towering presence in the box and has a great record of scoring from corners; Angelo Ogbonna and Fábian Balbuena add to the Czech’s threat; while Sébastien Haller is a traditional target striker who naturally thrives on aerial service into the box.

Very few sides have the requisite personnel to deal with four threats of this type. Saints will have to plan for this whilst dealing with the absence of Jannik Vestergaard too, making this an even more challenging scenario than usual.

Dig deep, adjust if needed

With just 75 hours between Fulham away and West Ham at home – plus a handful of pre-existing injuries to juggle – festive games push Premier League teams to their absolute physical limit and Saints are no exception.

It’s arguably even tougher for teams that style themselves the way Southampton do, as to play with the energy and intensity that Hasenhüttl commands, peak fitness and freshness is essential.

So the first task will be to dig deep. Hasenhüttl will flex and rotate his squad where possible to keep it fresh, but some players will have to soldier through another physical test and draw deeply upon their reserves to conquer it.

The second task is to adjust: if a higher press – and therefore higher defensive line – isn’t possible due to fitness constraints, we’ll likely see Saints temper their aggression and alter how often (and how far up) they decide to engage. 

That will have a knock-on effect back through the team and could see a much more, well, “normal” performance from Southampton...just this once.

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