Sam Tighe highlights the performance of Mohammed Salisu against West Ham United, as the Southampton defender continues to flourish in his second season in the Premier League. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
There was a moment just before half-time last Saturday, during Southampton’s 0-0 draw with West Ham United at St Mary’s, where Michail Antonio was dumped onto the turf and simply...stayed there for a few seconds.
He wasn’t hurt – no, he was frustrated, exasperated, at having come off second-best in yet another duel. That had barely happened in his first three Premier League games of the season; yet today it was happening seemingly every five minutes.
Antonio was the outstanding player in the league over the first trio of matches this term, netting four goals and adding three assists. He’s struck chords of fear into a long list of defenders over the last 18 months as he’s morphed into an incredible striker.
But on Saturday, Mohammed Salisu was not fazed.
He continually and calmly dealt with the vast array of tricks up Antonio’s sleeve, matching him at every turn. The Ghanaian has had a really strong start to 2021/22, but this was something else – a landmark performance; a 90 minutes in which he managed something most others fail at.
“I must say that on a man he is very strong, in the duels he is very nasty because this is his game,” Ralph Hasenhüttl said of the defender after the game, who admitted he was more than happy to match Salisu up against Antonio because of his physicality.
Salisu emerged as a frequent winner in those duels, matching Antonio’s speed and strength, out-jostling him on plenty of occasions and keeping his balance brilliantly as Antonio twisted and turned.
There are few better in the league at turning 50/50s and clearances into dangerous attacks than Antonio and it’s his ability to nudge players off balance that allows him to latch onto the ball so often.
Salisu stood firm, knocked Antonio off his stride, dominated in the air and cut out balls into feet time and again, his anticipation and reading of the game shining.
He stopped others, too, dealing with whatever West Ham threw at him. In the first half he went stride-for-stride with speedster Jarrod Bowen into the corner, then got enough on the desperate cross to take the sting out of it.
He stood and watched as Saïd Benrahma expended energy on stepovers in front of him, trying to deceive him, before calmly fishing the ball away from him and striding forward.
The authority he transmitted, in every scenario, was remarkable. When you consider the fact he’s not even completed two seasons’ worth of first-team competitive football in his entire career, it’s doubly so.
Salisu’s game is evolving with every passing week, and his improved positional sense and reading of the game will be particularly important this weekend as Saints encounter a completely different type of threat to West Ham and Antonio: Manchester City and their lack of an orthodox No. 9.
There’ll be fewer bustling duels, fewer balls over the top to deal with, fewer man-marking scenarios. City play a style that forces centre-backs to play zonally almost all of the time and asks difficult questions of them – when to push up and engage, when not to, which gap to cover or run to track.
He’s stepped up to a series of challenges already in his short Saints career so far, though. This is just the next on the list.