Talking Tactics

Promoted clubs: How Martin's Southampton can flourish

11 Jun 2024
Russell Martin, Southampton

Adrian Clarke says Saints' confident style of play can help them as they prepare for Premier League

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Adrian Clarke analyses the tactical approaches of the three promoted clubs and how they will fare in the Premier League this season.

Club analysis - Southampton

Southampton return to the Premier League as a well-coached side with a new, but exceptionally clear playing identity.

Demanding a brand of composed, confident possession football, Russell Martin did a fine job of marrying winning football, with the implementation of a new philosophy.

In 42 of their 49 Championship matches, his side lined up in a fluid 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 shape, with right-back Kyle Walker-Peters regularly inverting into central midfield.

When that happened, Saints' midfield box of four consistently dominated matches with their quality on the ball.

Martin did, however, tweak his tactics quite dramatically towards the end of the campaign, using a back three in three of their last four fixtures.

In both matches against Leeds United, Southampton adopted this strategy, sacrificing their usual possession game by averaging only 43 per cent on each occasion.

This switch gave them greater defensive solidity and made them less vulnerable to counter-attacks.

That adaptability could be a sign of things to come as they realign themselves to top-flight football.

As the stats below indicate, Southampton are comfortable hogging the lion’s share of possession, regularly producing patient passages of play.

They do not pass the ball for passing’s sake, though and always try to play with a positive purpose.

The amount of build-up attacks they totalled last season (sequences of over 10 passes that led to a shot or touch in the box) compared to the rest of the Championship, provides clear evidence of Southampton's unwavering desire to pass the ball in a vertical manner.

Top Championship passing teams 23/24
Club 10+ pass sequences Club Build-up attacks
Southampton 1,035 Southampton 263
Leicester 875 Leicester 202
Leeds 697 Leeds 150
Hull 680 Middlesbrough 130
Middlesbrough 599 Hull 123

No one scored more goals or created as many chances in open-play as Southampton last season.

They had scored only 36 goals of any type all season when finishing last in the 2022/23 Premier League, so this turnaround was an impressive coach-led change.

Passing and moving the ball with confidence, recalibrating ideas on the positional play of his individual players, Martin's players quickly took his ideas on board.

Most Championship open-play shots/goals 23/24
Club Open-play shots Club  Open-play goals
Southampton 566 Southampton 68
Leeds 548 Ipswich 67
Ipswich 542 Leeds 66
Leicester 522 Leicester 65
Watford 474 Norwich, Middlesbrough 56

Top-flight opponents must also be wary of handling fast starts whenever they face Southampton.

Catching several teams cold with high-tempo openings, they scored a league-high 31 goals in the opening 30 minutes of matches last season.

Defensive frailties

Martin has done an outstanding job, but his style of play is not risk averse.

He will ask his goalkeeper, defenders and midfielders to receive the ball in tight areas inside their own half, so they can cleverly beat the opposition press with intricate pass and move football.  

When it worked, they looked brilliant, but mistakes were made.

This led to a number of unnecessary concessions, especially early in the season, but as the campaign wore on Southampton’s players learned how to manage those situations more sensibly.

Even so, they did concede 54 goals in open play en route to promotion.

Incredibly, only three teams conceded more goals in that manner, with two of those relegated to League One.

With this in mind, and given its success late on in the season, Southampton may revert to a more pragmatic three-man defence more regularly from August onwards.

Hard to play against

They may revel in playing keep-ball, but there is nothing soft about the way Southampton play.

A key part of their success stemmed from tireless off the ball running, plus an organised high and mid-pitch press.

No Championship side forced more shot-ending high turnovers than the 82 of Southampton, and in general, opposing teams struggled to find their rhythm against Martin's side.

Opta’s stats for Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA), which measures pressing intensity, show that Southampton led the way with a low average of 10.4 passes made by rival teams before they intervened with a defensive action.

Championship teams PPDA compared 2023/24
Club Total PPDA
Southampton 10.4
Leeds 11.1
Leicester 11.1
Stoke 11.2
Ipswich 11.3

All three promoted teams featured high on this list, reflecting how valuable pressing has become.

Diligence, teamwork and good organisation were certainly on display in their 1-0 playoff final win over Leeds at Wembley Stadium.

That resilient performance should provide Southampton with confidence that they have what it takes to handle Premier League opponents.

Modifications will be made to their tactical approach in a division that is sure to test their style of play, but Martin has laid down enough groundwork to give his players’ belief they can make the step up, playing football his way.

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