Southampton had a busy summer, with two significant outgoings in Danny Ings and Jannick Vestergaard and seven incomings. Despite the loss of Ings and Vestergaard, to Aston Villa and Leicester City respectively, there was a degree of positivity around the south-coast club after bulking up their shallow squad with some exciting young players. However, the club have found a Premier League victory elusive in their four fixtures so far this season, with a resounding 8-0 win over Newport County in the EFL Cup their only taste of victory to date. Three consecutive draws have followed since an opening day defeat to Everton. Two of these draws can will generally be considered as decent results, against Manchester United and West Ham United, with the draw away at Newcastle United disappointing despite the leveller coming deep into stoppage time. Next up for the Saints is as tough as it gets in the Premier League with an away trip to champions Manchester City, but there is no need for those associated with Southampton to panic for a number of reasons.
Leaky Defence Becoming More Solid
Southampton’s frantic, high energy, ‘Gegenpress’ has earned them many plaudits in Ralph Hasenhuttl’s time in charge but has also left them particularly vulnerable at the back as a result. The key for Southampton is to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible. The problem that this causes is that, once an opposing team manages to break the press, they have bypassed a number of players and can then exploit an exposed defence. Two 9-0 defeats in twwo seasons exemplify just how bad this can get when not executed correctly. It can lead to some really impressive victories, but can similarly result in some heavy defeats where other teams would perhaps realise their inferiority to their opponents and adapt their approach accordingly. This season, though, Hasenhuttl seems more open to adapting his style to address the issues that the side have suffered from defensively.
In Saturday’s 0-0 draw with West Ham, Southampton’s first league clean sheet of the season, Hasenhuttl strayed from his staple 4222 formation and tweaked this to play a 4141 formation. By sacrificing a striker, Hasenhuttl tightened up his midfield, with Oriol Romeu deployed in a role that allowed him to clear up anything in front of the back four. This meant captain James Ward-Prowes played slightly further forward than his usual ‘6’ position, with the reinvigorated Moi Elyounoussi alongside him. Nathan Redmond and Moussa Djenepo were tasked with providing the width with help from fullbacks Tino Livramento and Romain Perraud, while summer recruit Adam Armstrong was the lone striker. This move saw Che Adams drop to the bench. By playing this way Southampton conceded possession in favour of playing a deeper block and allowing Romeu to stay close enough to his back four to be an effective disruptor to West Ham’s attacking players. It is a role that suits Romeu well but it is a formation that will require Ward-Prowse to adapt slightly. Playing higher up the pitch should be beneficial as he should find himself in more positions where he can utilise his crossing and shooting ability but he will have to improve at taking the ball on the half-turn where he has become so used to play being in front of him in his recent deeper role.
While it has been a surprise to many that Poland international Jan Bednarek has not started a league game this season, central defenders Jack Stephens and Mohammed Salisu’s partnership is getting stronger by the game and is a good blend of Stephen’s cool head and Salisu’s pace and power. Salisu is one of very few defenders that can say they’ve been able to match Michail Antonio for aggression, pace and power in recent seasons and that is testament to his athleticism. Perraud and Livramento have both looked very good in both defence and attack and look like shrewd investments. An even bigger surprise than Bednarek’s absence has been Livramento displacing Kyle Walker-Peters from the right back position. Walker-Peters was one of the club’s star performers last season and it was generally assumed that Livramento had been brought in as cover but Livramento’s performances have been so impressive this season that Walker-Peters has been unbale to occupy his favoured position in the league so far. There is a school of thought that Hasenhuttl could play the two together, with Livramento playing in a more advanced role and Walker-Peters returning to right back. This is an idea that could be better suited to the 4141 Hasenhuttl utilised at the weekend and it will be interesting to see if it is a formation that the Austrian opts to use moving forward. With Stuart Armstrong still yet to play this season, it is a formation that could allow him to play more centrally in the four ahead of Romeu, alongside Ward-Prowse. The only potential issue with this formation is that the striker can become very isolated, as Adam Armstrong found against West Ham. However, it looks as though Hasenhuttl’s focus will be solidity before addressing concerns further up the pitch. There are options to consider higher up the pitch toom with an impressive cameo from Chelsea loanee Armando Broja on Saturday, as well as the likes of Che Adams and Nathan Tella.
Winnable Run of Fixtures on the Horizon
Another cause for Optimism is that Southampton have negotiated a tricky start to the season with only one defeat. The next three fixtures are also very difficult. Southampton face Manchester City, Wolves, and Chelsea in their next three fixtures and it is quite possible that they will still find themselves without a league victory after seven games of the season. This should not result in a knee-jerk reaction, though. After these fixtures, Southampton have a very favourable run of five matches, all of which they have a very good chance of getting positive results. Starting on 16th October, the Saints face Leeds United at home, followed by a run of Burnley, Watford, Aston Villa, and Norwich City. After this run of games the club should find their league position far more favourable than they do currently, where they are 13th, and will be hopeful that they can start to look up the table.
With Wolves’ indifferent start to the season under new manager Bruno Lage, Southampton will fancy their chances despite their recent difficulties in combatting the threat of Adama Traore. If they get their press right and stay solid Southampton are capable of beating anyone on their day, as they showed by beating Manchester City 1-0 in the 2019/20 season, so they will not go into the fixtures against City and Chelsea without optimism. If they can secure three points from their next three games that will set them up positively to attack the five fixtures that follow.
With the club’s summer investments the club find themselves with a much better squad as a whole to pick from and can change personnel in certain areas without compromising their chances of winning games. This is a luxury they haven’t been afforded in recent seasons, with Hasenhuttl often bemoaning the lack of options he has had beyond his starting eleven. With the loss of Ings and Vestergaard it could be argued that Saints’ starting eleven is weaker than last season but the quality in the squad is incomparable, such is the quality in the summer signings. Elyounoussi coming back into the fold after two seasons on loan at Celtic is also like a new signing and it speaks volumes of his character the way in which he has turned his Southampton career around when the writing seemed on the wall. Broja, Tella, Redmond, Walker-Peters and Stuart Armstrong have all either played minor parts or not at all so far this season and will undoubtedly play a valuable part as the season progresses.
Despite the lack of league win, there is more than enough to be optimistic about for Southampton.