Tactical Watch: Closing the centre

By SFC Media time Fri 15 Apr Saints vs Arsenal

Sam Tighe previews Southampton's meeting with Arsenal in the Premier League in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.

Southampton host Arsenal this weekend in a meeting between two teams looking to make amends – Saints for last week’s result against Chelsea, the Gunners for two consecutive losses that have surrendered the advantage they had held in the race for the Premier League’s top four.

Arsenal have been perhaps the streakiest team in the league this season, putting together impressive, long winning runs – but suffering greatly in between said runs. They’ve gone from five straight wins to three losses in four; similarly, they won five straight in December, then failed to win a single game in January.

The Londoners have very much had to take the rough with the smooth this season, and coming into this game it’s been more of the latter. Results have stalled in large part due to a series of key injuries that have harmed their momentum, with each absence having a knock-on effect on another part of the team.

Back in February, the only real question facing Arteta with regard to team selection was whether Gabriel Martinelli or Emile Smith Rowe occupied the left flank; almost every other position was set. It felt like the perfect mix of consistency in selection and surprise factor in attack.

Fast-forward to April, though, and the absences of Kieran Tierney (LB), Takehiro Tomiyasu (RB) and Thomas Partey (CM) have upset the balance of a squad that lacks the numbers to cope with such hard luck. Arteta has so far struggled to find solutions.

Former Saint Cédric has stepped in at right-back, but at left-back a Tierney replacement is yet to surface. They tried Nuno Tavares there against Crystal Palace and Granit Xhaka against Brighton but lost those games, and taking Xhaka out of the middle (in addition to Partey’s absence) destabilised another area.

Expect Arteta to cycle through a few more possible solutions between now and the end of the season, but whatever he does takes quality from another area – and that has made Arsenal easier to defend against than usual of late.

James Ward-Prowse
Defence stats
Tackles won
25/41
Clearances
40
Blocks
15
interceptions
46
See all statschevron right

Southampton could find success in focusing their efforts on blocking out the centre of the pitch, crowding the space where their most influential players gather. Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka are the key threats, while Arsenal look to find Alexandre Lacazette’s feet in build-up, rather than go over the top, putting all three in a similar zone.

Crowding the centre makes it harder for their creators to find space. It forces the ball wide and puts the onus on Arsenal’s full-backs to cross, which is easier to fend off. Meanwhile, only Martinelli can offer a true threat over the top – and that would most likely come from the left flank.

Saints will naturally want to press, but engaging goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale can be dangerous, as his line-breaking passing can suck you in and take you out of the game, setting Arsenal up in a transition of their own. Ralph Hasenhüttl will no doubt have that on the mind as he finetunes the tactics for this clash.

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