Sam Tighe looks ahead to the Emirates FA Cup semi-final between Southampton and Leicester at Wembley in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
This weekend brings Southampton’s biggest game of the season as the club travel to Wembley to take on Leicester City in a FA Cup semi-final showdown.
One more victory would book a place in a final and cap off a sensational run to this point, in which Saints have seen off four opponents – including Arsenal and south coast neighbours AFC Bournemouth – in comfortable fashion.
The Foxes represent the biggest test yet and require the biggest performance yet. Here are the three keys to pulling it off.
The Vestergaard-KWP link
Kyle Walker-Peters became an immediate key man for Southampton the moment he walked through the door last January for two reasons: first, he provided the sort of dynamism and ball-carrying ability on the right flank the club had been searching for; and second, he brought great traits of his colleagues to the fore.
Most notably, his ability to skip down the right flank has fully unlocked Jannik Vestergaard’s long passing ability, and the connection between the two is steely strong. The big Dane needs just a second to lift his head and rake a pass forward, and KWP has become his prime target down the right side.
That dynamic has become arguably Saints’ most effective and dangerous way of progressing the ball forward and is a staple in how they build moves. On a big occasion, with a place in an FA Cup final on the line, one of the easiest ways to find your groove is to look to your regular, ingrained patterns – of which this is top of the list.
It comes as an added bonus that targeting that flank will place Timothy Castagne – a right-footer playing as left-wing-back – under some pressure, while also circumventing what is an extremely strong central presence of Youri Tielemans and Wifred Ndidi for Leicester.
Fight aggression with... aggression
In response to a difficult week in February, in which Leicester were knocked out of the UEFA Europa League to Slavia Prague and then beaten by Arsenal at home, Brendan Rodgers produced a tactical shuffle.
He switched from a back four to a back three and moved to a full-time front two, the latter move reigniting the attack, the former shoring things up at the back and, perhaps, avoiding some awkward questions over which of his three stellar centre-backs should drop to the bench.
Two of those three defenders – Wesley Fofana and Çağlar Söyüncü – share a common trait: they like to defend in an aggressive manner that draws them up the pitch to hunt for the ball and leads them into plenty of physical tussles with strikers. It’s Jonny Evans’s job to sit between them and fill in the gaps.
This system can be imperious when teams shy away from that battle and allow Fofana and Söyüncü to dominate. The best way to combat it is play into their lust for a physical battle and take them on – with the idea of forcing mistakes or opening up avenues of space.
Saints are well equipped for this battle if required: Danny Ings has made a fool of Toby Alderweireld and James Tarkowski – en route to spectacular goals – because they got too tight, allowing him to twist and turn them. It’s the type of battle Ché Adams relishes too.
Containing Leicester’s 2016-style attack
Ever since that historic 2016 Premier League title win, Leicester have come to be revered as an attacking force and this season has been no different.
They’ve bagged the third-most goals in the division this season (55), have been in good goalscoring vein of late and, in particular, Kelechi Iheanacho has looked lethal, scoring nine goals in his last six club games.
Rodgers is now unleashing both he and Jamie Vardy as a pairing in a new-look 3-4-1-2 formation, offering them creative support from a No 10, but also leaning on their ability to interchange and bring each other into the game.
It’s a nicely balanced pairing that actually reminds of the 2015/16 title-winning pairing of Vardy and Shinji Okazaki; Vardy is his same old self, while Iheanacho drops in off the line, holds the centre of the pitch and links play.
Over the last two months teams have really struggled to contain them. Their movements and understanding are superb, as is their scoring prowess, and playing 1v1 as a centre-back – as Vestergaard and Jan Bednarek will on Sunday – is almost always harder than sharing a man between two.
Preventing this blossoming forward partnership from enjoying themselves rates right at the top of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s to-do list in preparation for this game. Get a handle on them and the semi-final is there to be won.