Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's Premier League trip to Leicester City in his latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Southampton finally return to action this weekend as they take on Leicester City at the King Power Stadium – a familiar hunting ground that’s brought fantastic memories in the last few years.
But despite a 12-day break since their last game, Saints have battled numerous injuries in preparation for this match and know full well how strong the Foxes have been in 2020/21.
Here are the three keys to triumphing for a third straight Premier League campaign in the East Midlands.
A defensive mystery
Spare a thought for Ralph Hasenhüttl and his analysts as they attempted to decipher how Leicester might line up this week.
Not only have the Foxes accrued a ridiculous wealth of centre-back and full-back options, but you can’t even be entirely sure if they’ll line up in a back four or a back five.
They’ve rolled out a 4-2-3-1 formation of late, and the easiest option for Brendan Rodgers would be to field (from right to left) James Justin, Wesley Fofana, Jonny Evans and Timothy Castagne again.
But Ricardo Pereira and Çağlar Söyüncü are angling for returns, while Luke Thomas can provide a left foot on the left flank that Castagne cannot. Justin has played as an outside centre-back this season and if Ricardo’s good to go, that might force a switch to a back five to accommodate him.
Who Brendan Rodgers opts for on the left has a knock-on effect for the approach play further ahead too, casting confusion over the sort of role Ryan Bertrand will have to play until the teams are announced.
Leicester are an excellent team – evidenced by a long stay in the top four over the past 12 months. Their unpredictability, the fact they keep opposing teams off balance, is a big part of that.
Southampton’s ability to roll and react to whatever they’re handed, therefore, is crucial.
Another emerging star
For the last two-and-a-half seasons, the story of Leicester’s midfield has been the emergence of James Maddison and Youri Tielemans – two exceptionally dangerous, creative players who have formed one of the cornerstones of the Foxes’ recent successes.
But the last few months have seen another, fresher face rise to prominence: Harvey Barnes.
The 23-year-old has started to develop a confidence and a killer instinct in front of goal; taking on shots with authority, hitting them with power, hitting them earlier than expected and using his weak foot a lot more.
He’s scored five goals in the last six weeks as a result. Operating off the left flank, he’s been able to mix and match his runs in accordance with who plays at left-back, drifting inside of the left-footed Thomas or breaking outwards when Castagne cuts inside on his right.
The variety of his runs, in addition to a new confidence in front of goal, has made him quite the handful. Add that to Jamie Vardy’s ever-present threat, Maddison’s prowess and the sheer size of this team at set-pieces, and it’s little wonder they’re among the leading pack.
Stepping up for Danny Ings
Hasenhüttl confirmed this week that Ings will miss the game, adding his name to an injury list that already contains Moussa Djenepo, Nathan Redmond, Nathan Tella and Michael Obafemi.
It leaves the club a little short of flexibility in the forward positions, but Hasenhüttl can still call upon a nicely balanced strike pair of Ché Adams of Shane Long – the latter of which has a rich history of spoiling Leicester’s day.
Southampton have won on both of their last visits to King Power Stadium and Long has played a pivotal role in both results. The Foxes have habitually struggled to deal with the Irishman’s blazing runs into the channel, which have resulted in goals, assists and points.
The key to ensuring this continues might just be Adams. His all-round game has improved immeasurably this season and his ability to drop in off the line, receive, turn and play like Ings does is noticeable. A prime example of this was his assist for Theo Walcott against Arsenal in December.
If he can draw the ultra-aggressive Fofana out of position, turn and release Long into the space to go one-on-one with Evans, there’s joy to be had with quick, counter-attacking punches.