All 20 teams in this year’s have given us something to think about and talk about since the start of the season. Some have done well, some have not. Some have exceeded expectations so far, others haven’t lived up to them as of yet. Some have won games, others have yet to get their first points. Some have signed exciting attacking players, others have focused on bringing in defensive reinforcements. But I think there is one team that I will be keeping a close eye on over the coming season, and that is Southampton. The Saints are embarking on their first full season under the management of Ralph Hassenhuttl and his team, and they have made a mixed start to the season, with some positives and negatives displayed so far.
In this article, I take a closer look at some of the things I have noticed about the Saints in their first two games this season, both losses against Burnley and Liverpool.
Firstly, I want to say that I thought their first game against Burnley was a disappointing one in some aspects, but pleasing in others. I was having a discussion with a friend of mine last week about Southampton, and whilst he feels that they were horrific, I felt that actually they were good to a point, but then tailed off slightly as the game went on, and mistakes started to creep in.
They set up with a 3-4-2-1 formation to try and make sure they could attack as Hassenhuttl wants them to, and in attack this did aid them. I thought they looked alright going forward, and they did miss chances through the likes of Che Adams, signed from Birmingham in the summer, and others, but the goals will come if they keep creating chances and trying to get on the end of them. I actually thought Nathan Redmond, who was so influential to the side in the latter stages of the 2018-2019 season as the Saints fought to stay in the Premier League, played very well and was a threat.
However, the wing-back formation has it’s downsides, as they found out. It’s great going forwards, because you can commit more players in the attacks, and you effectively have your full-backs keeping the width which allows the wingers who would ordinarily have to do that job to play more central and shoot more, but defensively it also has to operate that when the team loses possession of the ball, those same wing-backs drop back to defence, and you have a five-man line. In the World Cup in Russia last year, the reason that Germany lost against Mexico in my opinion was that, even though they were playing with full-backs and not wing-backs, the Mexicans’ second goal, through substitute winger Hirving Lozano, came because Lozano managed to get in behind the German full-backs. But this wasn’t happening against Burnley, or certainly not quick enough, and whilst the first two goals from Ashley Barnes came through central chances, the Clarets’ third came from Iceland winger Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who had found space in behind the left wing-back, Ryan Bertrand, and managed to cut inside and find the net. It wasn’t the first time that this had happened in the match either.
However, against Liverpool, Southampton understandably focused on closing down the Reds’ attacks and preventing them creating chances. I thought they played so much better in this game than against Burnley, and it may have been due to Liverpool’s tiredness after their mid-week exploits in Istanbul, but Southampton were winning corners, in that they were getting to the ball before any Liverpool player when it was crossed in, and they were getting in Liverpool’s faces and really causing them problems. I think Oriol Romeu is such an important player for them, and they have to keep him fit and play him when they can, because he does the dirty work in winning balls off attackers and preventing counter-attacks, and he did so on one occasion against Mohamed Salah too. Liverpool weren’t at their best, as I have said, and it really looked to me like the Saints would score first. They were creative, defensively strong, and it took something special from former Saint Sadio Mane to break them down. Note that his goal was not from inside the box – that tells you how Liverpool had to find the goal by shooting from distance, due to Southampton’s defensive rigidity.
But that still didn’t make Saints panic initially, as they continued to stay true to the game plan and to block crosses and centres, and this meant Liverpool were forced to stay in wider areas of the pitch, rather than making runs inside and at their opposition like they prefer to do. They made them have to cross the ball high across the pitch, when the balls are then 50/50 and anyone who wants to can win them.
This is not to say that Southampton were completely perfect – far from it. They did make a mistake which led to Liverpool’s second through Roberto Firmino, but their defence looked a much improved overall package, and something that they can work with and build on.
As far as Liverpool went, I thought Joel Matip had a really poor game, constantly giving his goalkeeper Adrian things to worry about, such as preventing an own goal by Matip, but the Spaniard was not completely free of blame, as he gave the ball to former Liverpool striker Danny Ings to get the Saints’ first goal of the season.
Overall, I did think that Liverpool were perhaps lucky to win here, but Southampton did have positives that they can take from this match. Che Adams has proven to be a signing who can score goals and deliver the goods if he continues to get in the right positions -as I said, the goals will come if Southampton keep creating opportunities. He was a bit of a handful for Liverpool at times. They just need to be a bit more concentrated at times and cut out the sloppy errors which normally lead to them conceding goals.