Sam Tighe looks ahead to a stiff test for Southampton against Premier League champions Liverpool, in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Monday evening sees Southampton welcome reigning Premier League champions Liverpool to St Mary’s.
Both will see it as the final test in a true gauntlet of festive games and both will be looking to finish that sequence off with a win. Three points could lift Saints closer to the top four, while three for the Reds would put some breathing room between them and second in the table.
Here are the three keys to beating Liverpool – something very few managed in 2020 – and starting 2021 off on the perfect note.
The impact of Thiago Alcântara
Injury has cruelly robbed Liverpool of Thiago’s impact for the majority of this season so far, but he returned to action off the bench against Newcastle United and the impact he made was astonishing.
He immediately lifted the midfield’s level and began playing penetrative passes forward, leading to a strong final 15 minutes as the Reds sought a winner.
It was in stark contrast to the previous, laboured 75 minutes (and the stale 90 played out against an incredibly defensive West Bromwich Albion before that).
With Liverpool in need of a spark, Thiago is the clear candidate to provide it and there’s a strong argument that he must start against Southampton.
If so, Saints will have to work extra hard to close the spaces between the lines, be constantly mindful of the Spaniard’s reverse passing ability and think carefully before over-committing to press him – he relishes those duels and often splits defences open who try to clamp him.
Jürgen Klopp’s been performing weekly miracles to keep Liverpool afloat this season in the face of a genuine injury crisis, with his defence the hardest-hit area.
Fabinho has been permanently converted into a centre-back following season-ending injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, while Joël Matip’s own bumps and bruises have seen Academy products Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams share a handful of starting opportunities.
This, naturally, has caused some disorganisation and uncertainty in the Reds’ defence.
The central pairing changes a lot, and each player is distinctly different. Phillips is an aerial titan but slower on the turn, while Williams is a better match for quicker attackers.
Both have a tendency to drop back and cover whereas Fabinho – naturally a defensive midfielder – likes to step forward, creating inconsistencies in the defensive line and problems with the offside trap.
Set-pieces have also been an issue. How do you settle into an established marking scheme with clear responsibilities when the players change constantly, with one bringing different traits to another?
Southampton lead the league in set-piece goals this season (eight) and relish the chance to run the shoulder of the defence, so could well cause issues to Liverpool in both of these areas.
Runs from deep
Another knock-on effect of the central defensive injuries Liverpool have sustained is increased trouble dealing with midfield runners breaking forward from deep.
For several years now, the Reds’ midfield three have passed deep runners on and left them for the centre-backs, knowing the colossal van Dijk or incredibly speedy Gomez will pick them up. But with neither present, those runners have been passed on and allowed to run into dangerous areas and really threaten.
Among Saints’ ranks, Stuart Armstrong in particular is the kind of player who can ghost forward and take advantage of this, starting from a deeper position and making penetrative runs past Liverpool’s midfield trio.
The Scot’s proven incisive and adept in those pockets between the lines, either creating or scoring several goals this season.