20 November 2013

Southampton Preview; Yes, I'm chomping at the bit

Now that the interlull has finally ended, we can get back to some proper football. I probably shouldn't slag it as much as I do. After all, the World Cup is something special, and they have to figure out how to sort national teams somehow. The friendlies, though? Those are another matter. If they could maybe play these under different rules—no tackling whatsoever, for example, or no running—I might see things differently. Then again, I've just described a pleasant knock-around in the park, so who'd pay to see that? So it goes.

What was I talking about? Oh, yes: Southampton. Who'd've thunk that the Saints, under administration and relegated to League One as recently as the 2009-10 season, would now sit third in the Prem? Last year, their first in the Prem since 2004-05, started a bit rough as they conceded 31 goals in their first eleven matches. At this point last season, they languished in 19th. What a difference a year makes and all that. Southampton went a on a bit a spree over this past summer, splashing some £12.5m on Victor Wanyama, breaking the club's transfer record in the process—only to break that record yet again by signing Pablo Osvaldo for a £15m fee. The most important addition, though, may be that of manager Mauricio Pochettino, who took over in January. Since that time, they've gone for 10W, 12D, 6L,including last year's wins at home over Man City, Chelsea, and Liverpool by a combined 8-3. Critics have sneered, suggesting that it's only a matter of time before they stumble and end up where they belong—whatever that means.

Average player-position vs. Swansea
However, the defensive platform on which their success is built should, if anything, provide a solid foundation for consistent success. They've only conceded five goals thus far, and a closer look at how they're doing this will be key to taking all three points. First, the bad news: Southampton frequently drops two banks of four defenders to the box, leaving precious little space to operate. An instructive example of this might come from Swansea's 2-0 loss because, of Southampton's opponents, Swansea's style is perhaps most similar to ours. Swansea kept 54% possession but just couldn't create chances. On the few occasions that they did, Polish international keeper Arthur Boruc was more than up to the task. Sound familiar? Dominating possession, struggling to create chances, failing to score? It's not a storyline we've had to see much of so far this season—yet. On Saturday, we're likely to see one of the most-disciplined defenses so far this season. When you look at the average player-positions from that match, it's only Lallana (20) and Lambert (7) who spend any significant time in their opponents' third. They are, after all, forwards. However, contrast against most Arsenal maps, which show five or six players edging into the opponent's defensive third and you see the difference in their philosophy and ours.

As we're talking about action in the opponent's defensive third, we can take a closer look at the actions of Southampton's most-forward players. Lambert and Lallana aren't just lingering around up there the way that, say, the Suarez-Sturridge duo do, waiting for the ball to come to them. They're pressing high up the pitch to put pressure on their opponent's back four, and they frequently make tackles in the last third that lead to goal-scoring opportunities. In many of our own matches, we've seen languid passing between the center-backs and Arteta or Flamini as opponents wait patiently for the ball to cross midfield. That will likely not be the case as Lambert, Lallana, and Osvaldo will be harassing as high up as they dare. It's an aggressive strategy, but it's working quite well so far.

Pochettino's strategy takes time to learn because it asks the players to make intelligent reads and decide when to drop back to defend or to press higher up. The fact is that they've had a summer to drill and get to know this system, and they've earned the position they're in. It's not flukey. If anything, Southampton started slowly as they struggled to score for themselves, netting just three times in their first five matches. Then again, they've already won at Anfield and drawn at Old Trafford. These might have been partially due to early-season underestimations, a mistake we'll have to be sure to avoid on Saturday. It's hard to believe that it's still three days away.

I mentioned way back that the bad news would be first. Fair enough. Now, the good: we should have Theo Walcott, a former Saint, back. Perhaps. Between him and Gnabry, we have some pacey wingers who can stretch defenses out of shape and find seams to run through. If they can stay wide, this should offer enough of a threat to unsettle Southampton's back line. Of course, pace and width alone are not enough. We will need a more-incisive display from the midfield, which was a bit dull and disjointed against Man U. Our passing game is likely to flounder a bit against this defense unless Ramsey, Özil, Cazorla, and others can do a better job of finding and exploiting seams. We have to go all the way back to 31 August for direct evidence of how to pick the lock; Norwich scored first after quicking switching the field and feeding Redmond on the flank. As the fullback continued his run in front of Redmond, he pulled a defender down to the endline, opening up space at the top of the box. Redmond took a touches to cut across the top of the box and shot beautifully. Indeed, by keeping their wingers wide and sending fullbacks forward to overload Southampton on the flanks, Norwich were able to find a number of chances that they were unlucky not to finish. With similarly wide play from Gnabry or Walcott on the right and Cazorla on the left (stay wide, Santi!), quick ball movement side to side could discombobulate Southampton's defense enough to see us getting more shots on goal. After all, if Norwich can do it, why can't we?

How do you think this one will turn out—can we put any past this stingy side?