Tactical Watch: Saints eyeing Selhurst repeat

By SFC Media time Fri 11 Sep Crystal Palace v Saints
Photo by Matt Watson | Nathan Redmond

Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe returns to offer his popular tactical take on Southampton's 2020/21 opponents, starting with opening day hosts Crystal Palace.

Southampton kick-off their 2020/21 Premier League campaign at the scene of one of their finest performances from last season, Selhurst Park.

Back in January, the Saints marched into south London and swept a poor, unsuspecting Crystal Palace side away, winning 2-0 to continue a sensational run of form all sparked by that gutsy display at The Emirates against Arsenal two months before.

That day Saints out-possessed Palace (55%-45%), out-shot them (15-7) and got six on target to the Eagles’ zero; Alex McCarthy didn’t have a save to make.

“Today, especially with the ball, was perhaps our best away performance of the season," Hasenhüttl cooed afterwards. "We were unbelievably good in the first half...in the second half we showed that we can stay concentrated for 90 minutes.”

As the team prepares for tomorrow's opener, the boss will be pointing to this performance as a benchmark to build on. So let’s rewind to that day and assess what worked so well.

Left-sided siege...

The formation for the day was, in principle, 4-4-2, though it only ever really resembled that off the ball; on the ball it was extremely lopsided, expanding freely on the left to get key figures into advanced areas.

Nathan Redmond was the star of the show, operating from the left wing but drifting inward, while Ryan Bertrand overlapped him consistently on the left. Bertrand’s runs were either played into or used as a decoy, allowing Redmond to square his marker up and go left or right. 

He scored in the 22nd minute, squeezing past Martin Kelly and James McArthur to rifle a shot into the top corner from 18 yards, but there was another moment a little later that even better exemplified how that particular “battle” was playing out.

In the 41st minute, the ball was cleared to Redmond with room to surge into, he squared up Kelly (again), faked to go left but then ducked right, sending Kelly crashing to the ground. Shane Long then darted from in to out and collected Redmond’s reverse pass, rounded the goalkeeper but ran out of room to cut the ball back across.

With the Bertrand-Redmond tandem ready for another campaign and Saints looking an even stronger outfit now than in January, there’s an opportunity to replicate this display and wreak havoc once again.

It wouldn’t surprise if Palace manager Roy Hodgson is reluctant to field Kelly given what happened in January, but with new signing Nathan Ferguson injured for the start of the season, his hand might be forced.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 30: Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace celebrates after opening the scoring during the Premier League match between Southampton FC and Crystal Palace at St Mary's Stadium on January 30, 2019 in Southampton, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images)
Zaha was sent off at St Mary's in 2019 following a clash with Ward-Prowse

...A more reserved right

Saints were all frills on the left, moving with fluency and freedom, but on the right it was pure nuts and bolts.

That was necessitated by both the electric presence of Wilfried Zaha for Palace and the fact Saints lost Cédric to injury after 20 minutes. James Ward-Prowse was asked to fill in while Stuart Armstrong played a studious role ahead of him, dropping back to cover – when he wasn’t scoring long-range pearlers of his own.

Ward-Prowse vs Zaha has become one of the most intriguing mini-rivalries in the Premier League over the last 18 months; they relish going up against and trying to get the better of one another. They’ll meet again tomorrow, though with Ward-Prowse likely in midfield, it should be Kyle Walker-Peters on marking duty (JWP will no doubt drift across and help out).

But while this worked a treat in January, it seems unlikely Southampton can be quite as biased toward one flank this time around. 

Having signed Ebere Eze this summer, Palace can now field a weaving, dribbling opposite to Zaha for the first time in years, and that demands respect and attention. It will diversify and balance Palace’s attack, making them far less reliant on one player to conjure everything, and force opponents to re-balance their defensive efforts too.

Jack Stephens
Distribution stats
Passes completed
1K
Crosses
1
Assists
3
Chances created
7
See all statschevron right

Stephens’ passing masterclass

Southampton’s forwards were consistently set running into space, on the attack, during January’s win. Redmond’s dribbling, Long and Michael Obafemi’s off-the-shoulder runs and Bertrand’s lung-busting overlaps all caught the eye, but so too did the man who made all of that happen.

Jack Stephens landed forward pass after forward pass, firing Saints forward with accuracy. His most-used outlets were Jannik Vestergaard, Oriol Romeu, Obafemi and Armstrong, but he found every single one of his teammates at least once.

His chipped ball into Redmond for the opening goal was perfectly weighted and came after a forward dart into midfield, scrambling Palace’s marking. When Hasenhüttl praised the quickness and sharpness of his team’s play after the game, the assertiveness and speed of Stephens’ balls out from the back would have been front and centre in his mind.

Saints’ No. 5 will no doubt have the chance to impact this weekend’s game at Selhurst similarly. 

Unless Hodgson changes his managerial style for the first time in more than 40 years, he’ll set his team out in a low block that’s difficult to break down and removes space between the lines. That’ll give Stephens room to step into and fire passes off – and he’ll have his favourite target, Danny Ings, to aim for this time too.

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