Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's Premier League clash with Crystal Palace at St Mary's in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Next up for Southampton is Crystal Palace, who make the trip to St Mary’s three days after securing mathematical Premier League safety courtesy of a 2-0 victory over Sheffield United.
As a result, you might expect the Eagles should play football free of pressure or concern for ramifications...but this is a Roy Hodgson side: even if they do, they’ll meld it with a typical steely defensive solidity and prove hard to break down.
Here are the three keys to a victory that would take Saints up to the 40-point marker and kick-off this final run of games in a positive way.
Handling Ebere Eze
Eze was one of the Premier League’s most intriguing transfers last summer, swapping Queens Park Rangers for Crystal Palace; finding top-tier football whilst remaining in the locale of his beloved London.
He’s had the inconsistent season you might expect of someone making the jump, but very recently he’s produced his most consistent string of performances – thanks in part to a new role in the side.
Moved inside from the flank to the centre in a 4-5-1 shape, he’s seeing more of the ball, is more involved in the flow of play, and the reward has been increased influence on the attack.
He single-handedly setup Christian Benteke’s goal against Sheffield United with a mazy central dribble and pass, and is frequently picking the ball up deeper and carrying it long distances.
He’ll fall into Saints’ central midfield remit due to his new position, and they’ll have to be aware of the danger he poses skipping forward with the ball at his feet.
Zaha, Ward-Prowse and an old rivalry
It’s one of the Premier League’s long-running duels: James Ward-Prowse and Wilfried Zaha haven’t exactly seen eye to eye over the last few years, giving Southampton vs Crystal Palace a curious edge every time they meet.
It harks back to JWP’s stint deputising as a right-back and having to mark Zaha, and that coincided with the transformation in the skipper’s game, where a new-found intensity and aggression changed what it was like to play against him.
If the last XIs are anything to go by, they may not come into contact too often this time: Ward-Prowse’s role in the left of a central midfield duo takes him away from Zaha’s left-wing role.
But there may be a temptation from Ralph Hasenhüttl to rejig the line in the name of keeping players fresh – and perhaps reintroduce Ibrahima Diallo, shift Stuart Armstrong right and field JWP in Zaha’s zone. After all, containing Zaha is crucial to stymieing Palace’s threat, and JWP has a track record of being something approaching Zaha-kryptonite.
Find a clinical edge
Saints fell to Liverpool on Saturday in a game where both sides managed a similar number of shots (14 to 12) and the same number of shots on target (six apiece). The difference, of course, was the finishing.
"We had chances, but we didn't score," Hasenhüttl said after the game. "The opponent also had chances and they scored twice – so simple is football sometimes.”
A good variety of chances were created, including headers from set-pieces and releasing forwards through one-on-one, but Alisson Becker came up big between the sticks, ensuring Saints took nothing from the contest.
Scoring the first goal in a Premier League contest is crucial, the odds of winning shifting heavily in your favour if you get it. It’s a lesson Saints were reminded of against Liverpool and will have to be conscious of against Palace – a team who defend extremely well, particularly from a low block.
If Danny Ings is fit to play that will be a big boost to the forward corps, who could also rotate to find both freshness and the clinical edge needed to win.