Tactical Watch: Battle of the set-piece kings

By SFC Media time Fri 10 Sep Saints vs West Ham United

Sam Tighe focuses on the Premier League's two most prolific teams from set-pieces in 2020/21, as Southampton prepare to welcome West Ham to St Mary's. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.

Tomorrow Southampton welcome a West Ham United side to St Mary’s who have started the season in impressive fashion.

Seven points from their opening three games represents a fast start, while they also share the Premier League’s joint-highest goal tally (10) with Manchester City at this early stage.

The settled nature of their squad helps: they’re yet to change their starting XI this season, and every member of said starting XI was at the club last season. The Hammers’ slow transfer window certainly played a part in that – perhaps David Moyes didn’t have a choice – but it does partially explain why they’ve looked like a cohesive unit from the off.

Three of their attackers have started the season in fierce form, with Michail Antonio, Pablo Fornals and Saïd Benrahma combining for eight goals and four assists in the first three Premier League games.

Antonio’s brute-force style has been rightly highlighted and praised; his purposeful runs in behind, the way he stretches the pitch and leads counter-attacks, he’s perfect for the more direct way Moyes wants to attack. The raw power on his shots is causing goalkeepers great difficulty at the moment.

Benrahma has stepped into the role Jesse Lingard vacated in the attacking midfield band and shone, his wriggling dribbles a problem and his distance shooting a real threat. He and Lingard are different players – Lingard’s off-the-ball movements define his game, whereas Benrahma does more damage with it at his feet – but they’re keeping the threat level consistent.

What will likely bring Moyes just as much pleasure is their willingness to pitch in defensively, too. West Ham can and will pressure you high, but spend more time in a defensive mid-block, focused on preventing penetrating passes into forwards and blocking out the midfield.

Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček are in charge of this phase of play, as they shuffle from left to right to block passing lanes. The attacking quartet draw into a narrow shape ahead of them to protect the middle. They’re trying to force you wide and away from the danger areas.

James Ward-Prowse
Distribution stats
Passes completed
2.4K
Crosses
65
Assists
7
Chances created
60
See all statschevron right

It’s also no surprise to see West Ham off the mark in terms of set-piece goals, either. They were the best in the league last season from these scenarios, scoring a whopping 16 from dead balls, and they’ve got one already this term.

The mid-block West Ham set up in defence means the area just outside their box can get very busy and very messy. Sustained, slower attacks that allow the Hammers to drop in and flood that area with bodies are difficult to convert – you’re relying on stray balls, rogue touches or lucky bounces to create a yard of space.

Quicker, more direct attacks are much more effective, which bodes well for a Southampton side seemingly geared a little more towards counter-attacking this season. If forced wide and into the path of tenacious tacklers Aaron Cresswell and Vladimír Coufal things will get gritty, but again, Saints have the sort of personnel in Moussa Djenepo who can conquer these scenarios.

Defending set-pieces against the league’s best will be a challenge – and West Ham have only got stronger in this area over the last few weeks, adding Kurt Zouma to their squad – but Saints can at least fight fire with fire: Southampton scored 15 set-pieces goals in 2020/21 to the Hammers’ 16, with James Ward-Prowse arguably the finest from a dead ball in the country.

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