Southampton come into this match with 2 points from their opening three matches with a pair of 1-1 draws against Watford and Sunderland either side of a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United.
New manager Claude Puel has opted for a very attacking diamond 4-4-2 with Dusan Tadic playing at the tip of the diamond just in behind Nathan Redmond and either Shane Long (Watford and Manchester United) or Charlie Austin (Sunderland). Oriol Romeu shields the defense at the base of midfield. Ben Davis plays in an inside left shuttling position, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (or James Ward-Prowse) plays the inside right role. Width comes from the two fullbacks- Cedric Soares on the right and Matt Targett on the left. Virgil van Dijk and José Fonte partner at center back with Fraser Foster in goal.
Southampton’s issues early this season have stemmed from their inability to put away chances. The summer departures of Sadio Mane (Liverpool) and Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng) have left Saints without their two top goal scorers in the league from last season.
Their diamond 4-4-2 shape is a brave and very attacking approach from Puel and they haven’t struggled to keep possession and create shooting opportunities. Puel has stated he wants to adopt a possession-oriented approach with Southampton up against a crowded fixture list this season due to their involvement in the Europa League. They have the third highest average possession in the league at 57.8% behind only Manchester City and Chelsea and have taken the second most shots per game (17.7) behind only Liverpool. However, only 4.7 of those are on target. That ranks just 8th in the league. They’ve created some free-flowing, attractive play in the Watford and Sunderland games but haven’t done enough in the final third. Interestingly, in both of those contests they seemed to be bolted into life by the opposition scoring first then created a slew of chances and could have won. However, they’ve scored just two goals in their three matches.
They have a capable yet not entirely consistent crew of attacking options to replace Pelle and Mané. Shane Long is an excellent athlete, full of pace and strength, but isn’t a prolific goal scorer. In his 11 seasons of professional football in England (in both the Premier League and Championship) he has scored 10 or more goals just twice. He hit 10 last season, his best effort in the Premier League.
Charlie Austin was brought in in January from QPR. He scored a late winner against Manchester United in his first appearance for the club but hasn’t found the net since. His movement was sharp in his start this season against Sunderland and he put himself about but failed to find the net and was caught offsides repeatedly.
Dusan Tadic is an electric attacking midfielder, capable of single-handedly changing a game on his day the way very few other Premier League players are. He provided 12 assists last season, tied with Dimitri Payet for third behind only Ozil and Christian Eriksen. He also chipped in 7 goals. That’s a brilliant output but if any criticism can be leveled at the Serbian it’s that he occasionally lacks consistency and can disappear from matches.
Nathan Redmond was brought in from Norwich this summer. The 22 year old looks like he has the potential to be a real talent. He’s able to take defenders on with his direct dribbling and finished a volley excellently in the opening weekend against Watford. He scored 6 and assisted 3 for Norwich in their campaign that ended in relegation last season and prior to that scored 6 and assisted 13 in the Championship for the Canaries in 2014-15. Consistency could be an issue with a player his age but he’s looked quite sharp so far this season and will be hoping for a breakout campaign.
Jay Rodriguez has remained at the club after rumors he would leave before the end of the transfer window. He netted the equalizer in the draw with Sunderland, his first league goal since the 2013-2014 season after suffering some horrible luck with injuries. He missed the whole of the 2014-2015 season with a ruptured cruciate ligament and missed nearly five months last season after having to undergo ankle surgery. Rodriguez was brilliant in 2013-2014, his last healthy season, netting 15 times in 33 appearances. He’s still just 27. Puel will hope he can push on after his goal against Sunderland and offer a goal threat off the bench.
Saints also signed Moroccan attacking midfielder Sofiane Boufal from Lille at the end of the transfer window. Boufal had 11 goals and 4 assists for Lille last season. He’s a player I know very little about. If he were to feature in Puel’s diamond 4-4-2 it would likely be for either Redmond or Tadic, Saints’ two best players so far this season so I certainly don’t expect to see him from the outset this weekend. However, he’ll provide depth they’ll need with European football on the horizon. He does have a poor disciplinary record however. He racked up 10 yellow cards and 2 reds at Lille last season.
I don’t see any of these players getting a 20-goal season but all of them are capable of chipping in. They are a talented bunch that could cause us issues if we aren’t organized. They’ll offer a different attacking test to us than Watford in the last match- they’ll move the ball along the ground and build play from the back. Individually their players are more technical and clever.
With no natural wide attacking midfielders in the diamond 4-4-2, Puel’s side can at times be extremely narrow. Their numbers in central midfield allow for plenty of passing options in the middle of the pitch but at times they’ve gotten themselves into some trouble when Tadic, Redmond, Davis and Højbjerg/Ward-Prowse have occupied the same areas of midfield, making the pitch very small and congested.
The screen shots below offer an example. Romeu has just played a pass for Redmond coming deep into midfield. All 5 of Romeu, Redmond, Tadic, Ward-Prowse and Davis are in a 20’ x 15’ area, making the pitch small and allowing Watford to defend in a tight compact shape. If Redmond is able to control the pass in a confined area he has nowhere to go with it other than maybe to Targett in the left channel (on this occasion he wasn’t able to control Romeu’s pass and they conceded possession).
Again, we see Southampton’s front three of Tadic, Redmond and Austin occupying the same space below, this time in the Sunderland game. Tadic and Austin are on top of each other and Redmond is right there as well doing nothing to stretch the pitch. They may be able to play some tight combinations in those areas if their technique is sharp but it’s relatively easy to keep a nice compact defensive shape when the opposition is making the pitch that small.
With such a narrow midfield Southampton’s width comes in one of two ways. The two fullbacks will push high up the pitch in possession or one of either Tadic or Redmond will drift wide. Both players can pose a real threat in wide areas. Against Sunderland Tadic drifted to the right channel, beat two defenders and stood up a cross to the back post that Long couldn’t quite head home. Redmond is also good when given the space to run at defenders 1 v. 1 in the channels.
With Southampton playing very narrow in midfield Monreal and Bellerin will have to play narrow to even up the numbers in the central part of the pitch. This will leave space in the channels for Soares and Targett to overlap into from their fullback position so our two wide midfielders will need to be diligent tracking their runs forward.
If Puel continues with the diamond 4-4-2 Southampton will be at their most vulnerable in the immediate moments after they concede possession. With the fullbacks pushing high up the pitch there will be loads of space in the channels to counter into.
In some systems where the fullbacks play high up the pitch in possession the two center backs will split quite wide and the deepest lying midfielder will drop in between them to form a back three. With the center backs split wide it leaves sides less vulnerable to counters in the channels when the fullbacks are advanced in the attacking third. Guardiola introduced this system at Barcelona with Sergio Busquets as the deep lying midfielder that would drop into more of a center back position when Barca were in possession.
Southampton however don’t really replicate this tactic. The center backs stay fairly central with Romeu just in front of them in the holding role. Therefore we should be able to cause real problems in the channels if we can quickly transition from defense to attack.
As the deepest midfielder Romeu will have an important role breaking up counter attacking opportunities. The ex Chelsea man isn’t especially quick or graceful in the tackle so the more we can get on the ball behind their more advanced midfielders and run at him the better. Forcing him into an early yellow would really limit his ability to break up play.
When they’re able to slow up the opposition and get numbers behind the ball defensively they do something really interesting. The two forwards will drop into wide positions to defend the opposition fullbacks, leaving Tadic highest up the pitch.
I’d maybe be a bit surprised if Puel stuck with the narrow diamond at the Emirates he's employed in the first three matches. We overwhelmed Watford in the channels last time out and I think Southampton open themselves up to a similar fate if they try to play narrow.
Although they’ve struggled to find the net thus far, they’re a far more fluid attacking side than Watford and have more dangerous players in their side capable of a moment of magic. We’ll need to be switched on defensively throughout the 90 minutes.
Ozil could be key. His movement between the lines is so clever. I think he’ll move into pockets of space either side of Romeu and dominate this match in the attacking third.