Friday 11 October 2013
With less than a week remaining of the 2012/13 campaign Southampton were still sweating on their status as a Barclays Premier League club. Now just five months later, Mauricio Pochettino's side are taking the top flight by storm and proudly sit in fourth place after seven matches, above champions Manchester United, as well as the likes of Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton.
Why the sudden upturn? Let's take a closer look…
Perhaps surprisingly, the Saints are not passing the ball with greater accuracy or scoring more goals than they did last term. Instead the cornerstone of their rapid improvement has been built around a tremendous new work ethic and clever organisation whenever they lose possession of the ball.
Where possible they now apply intense pressure to opponents high up the pitch, with forwards Rickie Lambert, Pablo Osvaldo, Adam Lallana or Jay Rodriguez setting off a chain reaction that sees the rest pushing up behind them in waves. Making life uncomfortable for opponents, forcing them into making a hurried pass, the Saints are now winning the ball back quickly in good areas (as they did against Liverpool at Anfield, outlined in image 1 above). In fact Rodriguez and Lallana are sixth and 13th respectively when it comes to individuals forcing turnovers this season.
If they cannot close opponents down, Southampton instead funnel back into a narrow 4-4-1-1 formation (as seen above in image 2), deliberately congesting the central area of the pitch. Here, new signing Victor Wanyama has made a big difference alongside Morgan Schneiderlin, and together the combative central midfielders produce on average 6.3 successful tackles per game. Behind them the tall centre-back pairing of Dejan Lovren and Jose Fonte are also both superb in the air, winning 4.3 and 3.6 aerial duels each in matches.
Pochettino has assembled a side who are physically powerful down the spine, and because they are well-drilled and possess a fabulous work rate, the Saints are proving difficult opponents to breach.
|Southampton's defensive improvement
Knowing your strengths and being able to utilise them properly is a core ingredient for any successful team, and Southampton do it well. With two big strong centre-forwards to aim at, Pochettino has sacrificed an element of pace in preference of technically sound footballers who can deliver consistent service, both in open play and from dead-ball situations.
|SOUTHAMPTON LONG PASS ACCURACY
|Accurate long passes/match
||Premier League ranking
Out wide, James Ward-Prowse and Adam Lallana are two of the division's most prolific and reliable crossers – delivering a centre once every 16 and 18 minutes respectively – while from the back few central defenders in English football are as precise with their distribution as Lovren and Fonte, who regularly turn defence into attack with pinpoint long-range passes into Rickie Lambert's head or feet (see illustration in image 3, and table below).
|SOUTHAMPTON CROSSING ACCURACY
|Accurate crosses/match||Premier League ranking|
Three of the Saints' seven goals have been scored from corners and free-kicks so far this term, and this is a trend that can be expected to continue. With size, organisation and precision in their favour, Southampton are one of the least wasteful sides around.
Everything Southampton did last season revolved around their talisman Lambert. He would link up play all over the pitch, run the channels, create chances, whip crosses into the box – and of course be asked to score the majority of the team's goals too.
This time around thanks to a change in system, Lambert (who is currently ranked the sixth-best forward in the EA Sports Performance Index) has a lot more support which has eased the burden on his all-round game.
The key difference now is Pochettino's use of a 'second striker' and the presence of record signing Dani Osvaldo floating around Lambert (as illustrated in image 4 above) lessens the need for the England international to expend as much unnecessary energy away from the central area of the pitch. The end result has seen him enjoy far more attempts, if not goals, so far this season.
|RICKIE LAMBERT ATTACKING THREAT
|Minutes per cross||71.3
|Minutes per chance created
|Minutes per shot||27.1||39.6|
|Minutes per goal||190.3||174|
Osvaldo's arrival has also given the Saints head coach more attacking options. After experimenting with the use of a 'front four' the Argentinian has revised his preferred formation to a lop-sided 4-4-2 that flips into an unpredictable and fluid 4-3-3 when his side attacks (see image 5 above). However, with Jay Rodriguez available to freshen up his side from the bench in place of Osvaldo or Lambert – or to supplement the forward line – there is simply more tactical variety available to the manager.
You have to admire the intellectual approach adopted by Pochettino and his Southampton side so far this season. They have a great awareness of where their strengths lie and this makes them an efficient and productive outfit.
Given their relatively small squad, injuries may affect their chances of staying in the top six but with such a solid new system in place it is unlikely they will drop away quickly either. With the ball the Saints will improve as the newcomers settle in, but without it they are already among the best in the division.
Southampton next travel to Manchester United in the Barclays Premier League on 19 October. For more details about that match, just click on this Matchday Live link.