Ronald Koeman’s Southampton have had a pretty average first 14 games(at the time off writing)of the season in truth. After managing just one win in their first four games, as well as being dumped out of the Europa League in the last qualifying round, it looked as if Southampton weren’t as good a side as they have been in previous overachieving seasons. However, a 3-0 win over Norwich was enough to spark a turn and Saints begin to see improved results, even going a run in which saw them lose just once in 10 following this. The unstable defence which we saw in the early stages began to look for more steady after the arrival of Dutch centre-back Virgil van Dijk, from Celtic, while the attack which seemed to lack much penetration improved parallel to the form of striker Graziano Pelle and fellow attackers Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic, with a helping hand from a new pattern of play which improved penetration.
In order to take a closer look at Southampton this season, I analysed a number of games, some privately, while two were published online for others to read.
Despite pressing in a 4-4-2 at times, the standard formation which has remained consistent throughout all games this season for Southampton is a 4-2-3-1. There have been slight variations of the positioning of the three more advanced midfielders as well as changes in personnel, however, 4-2-3-1 has been ever-present for Southampton.
In goals for Southampton has been on loan goalkeeper Martin Stekelenburg, due to first-choice Fraser Forster picking up a serious knee injury in the latter stages of last season. Third choice Kelvin Davis has made one appearance however, due to a small injury to Stekelenburg.
At right-back for Saints has been new signing Cedric Soares. Soares has been pretty impressive for Southampton and is actually a similar type of full-back to Marcelo, obviously on the opposite flank though. Maya Yoshida has at times filled in for Soares when injury occurs, and Southampton look far more vulnerable in this situation. Captain Jose Fonte occupies the right centre-back spot, with new signing Virgil van Dijk in the left centre-back position. Favoured at left-back is the attacking Ryan Bertrand, however, injury meant he missed a number of games in the opening weeks, young Matt Targett replaced him.
Vice captain Victor Wanyama has featured consistently on the right of a double-pivot, with Jordy Clasie and Oriol Romeu both playing as the left deep midfielder, depending on the match. When Clasie plays, he is more involved in circulation than Romeu would be, as well as leaving his position to press more than Romeu who rarely deviates from his holding positon.
One the right of the attacking midfield trio is often Sadio Mane, the centre Steven Davis and on the left Dusan Tadic. This trio can change both in personnel as well as positioning, Davis sometimes plays in an outer role and Mane can also be seen playing behind the striker. Tadic less frequently plays anywhere other than the left wing.
Up front for Southamton has been Italian striker Graziano Pelle.
Saints Switch to More Conservative Approach
The departure of previous manager Mauricio Pochettino for Tottenham saw Dutch manager Ronald Koeman come into the Southampton manager’s job. Pochettino’s sides, Southampton included, are known to play a high intensity pressing game. This left many wondering if Koeman could either, keep up the same quality and tempo of pressing as his predecessor or change the defensive approach of Southampton.
Under Pochettino, it was clear that Southampton would more stay true to their manager’s philosophy, even against stronger opposition who could exploit the space left by Saints high press.
In the above image City have relatively good positional play- both halfspaces are occupied as well as their full-backs taking up positions on the way which they could potentially use to their advantage if space opens up- however, Saints have managed to block, or make certain passing lanes risky with a man-orientated pressing strategy. The only minor concern for Saints in this situation is if Milner receives the ball in the halfspace but begins to dribble onto the wing and create a 2v1 with Zabaleta against Shaw, unless Lovren takes the huge risk of leaving Aguero unmarked centrally. This situation would be unlikely to cause a clear goalscoring opportunity though, as 1- Steven Davis could move to his left slightly to simply block, or tighten the passing lane, making the pass almost impossible and 2- Jack Cork’s positioning means if Lovren was to move wider to defend Milner, Cork could easily cover for Lovren and mark Aguero till Lovren moved back into position.
In Koeman’s first few matches in charge of Southampton it was clear that the Dutchman would look to move his team into less of an open side as the previous manager’s. Particularly against Liverpool, but still evident at times in other early matches, Southampton showed their spatially-orientated defensive approach. Despite this, Saints still counterpressed at times and even showed glimpses of high pressing, this perhaps showed that Koeman didn’t want to make a change as dramatic as totally eradicating Southampton’s weapon of pressing.
In this image we can see that there are a significantly higher number of red arrows than blue. This is just a slight indication of how Koeman has attempted to make the transition for his side in terms of pressing as smooth as possible. In his first season, Koeman used the intelligent positional sense of captain Morgan Schneiderlin to cover for Wanyama, his midfield partner, who could then press. Wanyama would press players moving with the ball towards the double-pivot, or move wider to force players towards the touchline where Clyne or Mane could press intensely. We can see that Steven Davis covers a fairly large amount of ground in his pressing, allowing Mane and Tadic to remain in position to press intensely nearer the touchline.
Following the sale of Schneiderlin to Manchester United, Koeman bought Jordy Clasie and Oriol Romeu as his replacements. Despite both having good qualities to play as a 6, neither quite has the positional sense of Schneiderlin, admittedly not many do. This means that Wanyama will have to balance his positioning and his pressing more, rather than being able to charge out of position to press as often. Another change is the job of Davis. Rather than pressing the centre and the majority both halfspaces, Davis is now tasked with blocking any passing lanes through the circled area, as well as man marking players who are in this area during opposition build-up. This means Mane and Tadic now have to press a little more ground, now having to press lightly in the halfspaces. Graziano Pelle barely presses the opposition centre-back, rather just laterally shifting to sometimes block a passing lane.
These images show how Koeman has integrated a more spatially-orientated defensive approach to Southampton compared to the scenario under Pochettino. Due to Pochettino favouring man-orientated systems, down to the fact that Bielsa was a large part of his development, I wouldn’t even have been able to use an image with no opposition to demonstrate Pochettino’s pressing.
Pattern of Play
The 2-2 draw with Newcastle on the opening day of the season wouldn’t suggest that Southampton lacked firepower or penetration in their play, however, if you watched the game, it was pretty clear that Saints didn’t the best of positional structures in attack.
Saints often formed the dreaded ‘U’ shape, which Pep Guardiola has spoke to critically of, during circulation which limited the options for penetration as well as making it an easy shape to defend against for the opposition. The U was perhaps formed due to Southampton lacking a set positional structure in possession, or any patterns of play which would help penetrate.
In order to combat the lack of penetration, Southampton worked on a pattern of play which significantly aided the team on this front. The pattern of play is primarily based in central areas of the pitch, however it can vary, depending on the opposition towards the left wing. Below is an image of the standard pattern of play in against Liverpool, this is played being centrally.
In the above image we are seeing Davis receive a lay-off from Pelle, with Mane preparing to run in behind the Liverpool defence.
The pattern of play begins with a player, usually a centre-back, coming forward with the ball near the centre circle. As the centre-back shapes his body to play a pass, Pelle slightly to the right or left onto a particular centre-back, usually the quicker of the pairing. As Pelle makes his movement, Davis(or any other player behind in the role behind Pelle)makes a movement away from Pelle in order to drag his marker out of position. The centre-back then clips a high pass into Pelle who will look to lay the ball off to Davis who has now moved into the open space in front of the centre-backs. As the ball is layed off, either an onrushing midfielder or a winger coming inside will make a penetrating run in behind the opposition defence(as Mane is doing in the image above), Davis will then attempt to slip the ball through to them.
This season Sadio Mane has benefitted massively from being able to play in any of the three roles behind the striker. In each of the three roles Mane has demonstrated his wide skill set. On the right of the three, Mane can use his pace to attack the outside of the opposition full-back, and links up well with new signing Cedric Soares who likes to move into the halfspaces, allowing Mane to take advantage of his isolation on the wing. In the central role, the timing of his runs penetrating the opposition defence when latching onto a through ball is very useful, as is his powerful shot. On the left, again Mane likes to make use of his powerful shot, by cutting inside onto hi stronger right foot. His pace can also can used on the outside of the full-back on the left, he often then cuts the ball back, an ability he developed during his time with Roger Schmidt at Red Bull Salzburg.
Some argue that having a pattern of play frequently used can make you predictable, therefore more easy to defend. Koeman defeats this idea however, as he has devised a system which allows Southampton to shift this pattern of play to the wings.
As we can see in the image, Bertrand and Mane are clear providers of width on either flank. In the standard system which focuses on central play, there isn’t too much width as the wingers often make runs inside. In this system however, there are two providers of width. On the the left, Ryan Bertrand will make tons of overlapping runs, making use of the space left by the drifting Steven Davis. During the pattern of play involving him, the build-up movements are the same as the other system, however, rather than Pelle laying the ball off, he will play a ’round-the-corner’ ball to the overlapping Bertrand onto the wing or just inside the halfspace. We can see this below.
Despite picking up an in injury over the summer which ruled him out of the first part of the season, Bertrand has been very good since returning to the side. Despite being known as an attacking full-back, we have seen a large improvement in the defensive side of Bertrand’s game this season.
The second pattern of play, this also involving width, uses width on the right rather than left. This build-up is the same as the first pattern, with Pelle laying the ball off to the player behind him. This player however, will look to pass the ball out to Mane, as quickly as possible, ideally with just one touch. This player will look to play a driven, flat pass out to Mane as this travels quickest to him compared to a high pass, which would give the opposition full-back more time get out to press Mane.
As we have read, Pelle is a key component in all Saints patterns of play in attack. His strength and ability hold the ball up, as well as bringing others into play is something we have seen him significantly improve upon this season. The ‘Italian dancer’ has 6 goals and 5 assists in 14 games this season, putting him 10th in the Premier League scoring charts, ahead of players such as Alexis Sanchez and Christian Benteke. Pelle’s performance against Bournemouth was a particular standout.
Saints Pendulum Midfield
As well as having a plan for preventing the opposition building from the back, and defending higher up the pitch, every team also needs a structure for defending deeper, ie in their own half. Some teams go with a man-orientated system in their own half, as this can limit the individual quality of the opposition, however, Koeman is very much a spatially-orientated defender and sets his side up this way.
Southampton’s midfield works as a sort of pendulum, it relies highly on lateral shifting and good concentration.
When Davis is bypassed, he retreats into a position alongside Wanyama and Clasie/Romeu, forming an almost flat midfield three. An image of this is below.
The way this midfield structure works is as follows: When the opposition have the ball in the centre, the three remains flat and no-one should leave the line to press unless the player begins advancing dangerously. If the ball is moved to a halfspace, or the wing, the ball-near outer centre-mid will spring into a press, as this happens, the other two midfielders shift laterally to cover the space left by the presser. For example, I’m the image above, if Ramires passed the ball to Willian(wide right), Romeu would leave his position to press Willian, Wanyama would move closer to the touchline to cover space, while Davis would also shift a few yards left. Davis though, has to be aware of a possible switch of play in this situation, and mustn’t get dragged too far over or Azpilicueta(out of the picture, near left touchline)would be alone and have lots of space to exploit.
Playing Out from the Back
Using the aforementioned pattern of play every single time Southampton attack is obviously not the case. Clipping the ball into Pelle’s feet would become predictable, easy to defend and most of all, make Southampton lack almost any threat whatsoever. As well as using the presence of Pelle up front, Saints make full use of the technical ability new signing Virgin van Dijk has in his locker. The Dutchman, who recently joined from Celtic for a fee of around £11.5 million is extremely skilful, something which is becoming increasingly common in the modern game. Van Dijk is more than willing to drive into midfield when the opportunity opens up, as well as using his passing ability to start attacks from deep.
In order to make full use of Van Dijk’s ability, Southampton’s double-pivot must make movements which open up space and passing lanes for Van Dijk to use.This is a situation from the match against Swansea. The black line shows where Van Dijk could dribble into, while the dotted white line shows the open lane to Tadic.
In the above image, we can see that Van Dijk has a wonderful opportunity to start a dangerous attack for his team. If he was to dribble into the open space, this would force a Swansea player to leave this position to press him, therefore leaving a space free for another Southampton player to move into. As well as having space to dribble into, Van Dijk also has an open passing lane to winger Dusan Tadic, who would then be in a 1-on-1 situation against Naughton, a situation where he has qualitative superiority.
Tadic is one of the best in one-on-one situations in the Premier League, his pace and dribbling skills are an absolute handful for any player. His defensive contribution is where he lacks slightly, but in Koeman’s slightly passive defensive system this isn’t too much of a problem for Tadic.
The cause of this space being opened up for Van Dijk is because of the pivot’s movements. Ward-Prowse has moved almost in between the centre-backs, giving Van Dijk an option to receive a one-two if there is no vertical passing options. Wanyama has began to move away from the left halfspace and into the centre, to create this space in the left halfspace for Van Dijk. Steven Davis movement is also key, he however, makes this movement frequently due to it being a part of Saints pattern of play.
Intelligent movement from Davis is something we have seen frequently over the last few months. Rather than being used a pivot, he is now playing in a more advanced role, where he has more freedom to make movements which have a bigger impact on his team’s attacking side of the game.
Southampton’s shaky start is beginning to show signs of disappearing and consistency even seems to be on the cards for Saints. After going on a nice run of just one loss in 10, the benefits of Ronald Koeman’s organised system are beginning to show. The rise in form from Mane, Tadic and Pelle has been a large factor in Southampton’s improvement, however, it is no coincidence that after the intelligent pattern of play was introduced, the attackers form began to rise.
Koeman’s men, are unlikely to break the top six of Arsenal, Chelsea(likely Leicester in place of Chelsea this season), Liverpool, Man City, Man United and Spurs for a number of years, so will again aim for a finish as high as possible below sixth. Ideally, Saints would finish seventh again this season and scrape their way into the Europa League group stages this time around, rather than crashing out at the last qualifying hurdle, in order to get that chance though, they must overcome the strength of outsiders Crystal Palace and Stoke who both look deserving of the seventh place spot this season.