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Naveen’s tactical preview: Man City v. Arsenal

By Naveen Maliakkal

The Set Up

While Manchester City could go with their 4-2-2-2, they have not started a match with that kind of system since their 3-0 victory over Southampton. With Sergio Aguero, Stefan Jovetic, and Edin Dzeko all fit for this match, they may go with this mode of playing, and the problems that this system causes for City’s opposition are, in part, described in the preview of the earlier fixture between these two sides. However, if City do go the system they have been using recently, which could be defined as an asymmetric 4-2-3-1, then it poses some slightly different questions for Arsenal.

At the back, Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta represent City’s first choice left-back and right-back, respectively. While both fullbacks can and will go forward to support City’s possession play, particularly when the play goes down a particular side. Zabaleta will probably spend more time in an advanced position than Clichy. Even though a 4-2-3-1 with Navas wide on the right may not create as much open space for Zabaleta to run into, he still remains a force down the right. Zabaleta, Navas, and Silva could look to form triangles to exploit a lack of ball-side flooding by Arsenal, which will allow them to exploit a potential 3-on-2 advantage down their right side.

At the center back position, a real dilemma seems to be present due to Vincent Kompany’s return to fitness. While Martin DeMichelis is the best center back in Manchester City’s squad, and his ability on the ball would have more value than normal, due to the absence of Yaya Toure, Pellegrini has tended to favor the Kompany-Mangala partnership, when all three center backs have been fit. In the nine EPL matches that City have had their top three center backs in the squad, Mangala and Kompany have started seven times (one of the two times the two did not start together was against Arsenal, earlier this season). If City go with Mangala and Kompany, they will have to make up for the drop in intelligence, game-reading, understanding how to defend 360 degrees of space, and on-ball ability, with athleticism and physicality. With Kompany, in particular, looking to atone for his lack of quality in defending on the front foot with shirt pulls, fouls, etc. the officiating in this match could play a key role in the effectiveness of City’ center backs.

As with the 4-2-2-2 formation, City will probably look to have four midfielders in/around the central third of the pitch. Samir Nasri will look to come infield from his wide position (or James Milner, if one of these two cannot play), while David Silva floats horizontally, probably starting in a kind of No. 10 position. Although Silva’s bread-and-butter is to come infield from wide areas, he is still effective when asked to make Mesut Ozil type movements, movements from the center of the pitch to wider areas.

Deeper, Manchester City will probably field Fernando and Fernandinho. Even though he started against Arsenal in their first EPL encounter, Frank Lampard has not started a Premier League match since City’s 1-0 win over Leicester. Outside of some appearances at the top of City’s formation, James Milner’s last Premier League start for City came against Everton. Of the two deeper midfielders, Fernandinho seems the candidate for a more vertical role, both when City have the ball and when they do not. These two players may be relied upon to penetrate Arsenal’s defensive lines, to get the ball to the likes of Nasri and Silva. Otherwise, City will have to take a more circuitous route, so to get the ball to their most dangerous players, in their ideal areas of operation.

Up top, if Sergio Aguero is fully fit, it seems unlikely that City would go with anyone else. While he does have the ability to play a creative role in City’s attacking build-up, Pellegrini prefers to have him higher up the pitch, and even more so this season. Aguero has excelled in this relatively limited role, given his skills. He has completed 3.3 dribbles/90 minute with a 56% completion rate. Compare that to his 2.5 dribbles/90 minutes with a 43% completion rate, last season. During the 2014-15 English Premier League season, Aguero has averaged 6.4 shots/90 minutes, with about 75% of them coming from inside the penalty area. His 6.4 shots/90 minutes represents about a 28% increase in his shooting volume over last season. His 4.8 shots/90 minutes from inside the penalty area represents about a 30% increase over last season. This has helped increase his scoring rate by about 21%, to an absurd 1.2 goals/90 minutes. At the same time, he has only completed 22.1 passes/90 minutes and 1.3 key passes/90 minutes, about a 21% and 41% decrease from last season, respectively. His 0.8 tackles+interceptions/90 minutes represents about a 45% decrease from last season (stats from whoscored.com). It seems obvious that the devastation that he can cause calls for Arsenal to build their game plan around shutting off the supply, rather than trying to directly stop the individual.

Compactness, Coordination, and (Maybe) Pressing

In Arsenal’s 6-3 defeat to Manchester City last season, Arsenal’s passivity out of possession stood out. While sitting in a deep defending position, looking to keep the opponent at arm’s length, can prove effective, it requires exceptional coordination of the XI, along with an emphasis on vertical and horizontal compactness. Arsenal lacked both the coordination and compactness necessary to successfully defend in this manner.

With City fielding two half-space1 attackers in Samir Nasri and David Silva, the space to the left and to the right of center, in between the lines, could be under siege.  In a 4-1-4-1 formation, this threat makes the holding midfielder’s task of controlling that space between the two lines of four rather difficult.  What can help is the entire XI being vertically compact. Compactness in this dimension lowers the amount of space the holding midfield must control between the two lines of four and enhance the ability of a center back or full back to make a challenge on the ball or the player, if the ball advances past the first line of four. Horizontal compactness also helps as well. Compactness, in this dimension, at the back, allows for the fullbacks to aid in defending those half-spaces. In the first defensive line of 4, such compactness enhances the team’s ability to deny entry of the ball into the space between the lines. It shrinks the windows though with passes travel. With this need for compactness, comes a need for the entire unit to shift, depending on the position of the ball so to properly deny passes from wide areas to central areas.

That compactness necessitates that coordination of the entire unit. If compactness allows for greater concentration and interaction of defensive resources, proper coordination allows for those resources to be located more ideally with respect to space, time, the ball, and the opponent. Looking at the second goal that Arsenal conceded in the 6-3 loss last season, one can see a complete defensive breakdown by Arsenal, while defending in a deep position.


Off a throw-in, Arsenal try to flood the ball-side with defenders. However, Ramsey moved into the back line to man mark Aguero, even though Koscielny is free to deal with the Argentinean. Mathieu Flamini, who has a central role in Arsenal’s first defensive line of four, is closest to the right touchline. Theo Walcott seems content to just occupy a space in a right-sided midfield position.  Mesut Ozil is stuck in between defending the pass into the interior or the pass back to Fernandinho, and ends up not shutting off either passing lane. Although keeping Giroud that high up the pitch may have been strategic, his positioning, leading to the unit’s lack of vertical compactness, makes Arsenal less able to deny a pass into the center of the pitch, if City switch the play to the other side. This leaves Yaya Toure in plenty of space to receive a pass, and Fernandinho makes that pass. With that inability to control the center of the pitch, any ball-orientation by Arsenal becomes useless, as City can quickly move the ball from one side of the pitch to another, before Arsenal have time to reorient themselves, allowing them to move the ball into more advantageous spaces they control. Toure receives the ball, with plenty of time to turn, see the run of Zabaleta, pick him out, and Zabaleta picks out Negredo to put City up 2-1. Giroud tries to apply pressure to Toure, but has to travel too far of a distance. Mathieu Flamini faces the same problem. So even though Yaya Toure will not participate in this match, coordination failures like this will make it too easy for City to create quality chances.

If Arsenal wish to have a more proactive defensive plan2, they still need to have the necessary compactness and coordination to not leave gaps. Arsenal’s first goal, in their 6-3 defeat, came from Aaron Ramsey putting Yaya Toure under pressure and winning the ball. However, this one-man press posed some risk for Arsenal. While Theo Walcott and Mathieu Flamini appear well positioned, given the angle at which Ramsey presses Toure, to deny the vertical pass, they are 10 meters away from Ramsey. Also, Arsenal’s front two are not in a position to deny entry of the ball into the space Fernandinho occupies.  So, for this one-man press to work, Ramsey has to win possession. Even dispossessing Toure, given the lack of Arsenal players sufficiently close to Ramsey, may prove useless, as City can get onto the loose ball and exploit Arsenal’s weak defensive shape. If Yaya Toure spins away from Ramsey, then he can advance the ball until an Arsenal defender must come out to challenge him. Options start to appear for City. Vertical passing lanes to Silva or Nasri may open up; he could play the ball to Fernandinho, who can continue to carry the ball forward; he could play the ball wide to Clichy, who could look to make an interior pass between the lines. Fortunately for Arsenal, Ramsey wins the ball.

Pressing City, to deny entry of the ball into the spaces occupied by the likes of Silva and Nasri, especially with Yaya Toure not playing, could prove an effective method of controlling the match out of possession. A potentially useful wrinkle could be having the wider players in the first line of four be the one to initiate pressure on either Fernando or Fernandinho. Say the ball goes to City’s right central midfielder. Instead of having the left central midfielder press the man with the ball, potentially exposing a passing lane, into a more dangerous central area, the team could have the left midfielder apply pressure. He should bend his run to increase the difficult of making a successful pass to the right-back. At the same time, the man at the top of the defensive shape can look to press the man with the ball, making sure his run shuts down the passing lane to City’s left center back.

If Arsenal have enough compactness in their defensive shape, the two central players can deny the more vertical passing lanes, with the holding midfield and center backs able to make interceptions or put pressure on the receiver. Arsenal’s right-sided midfield and right center midfield are close enough to City’s other central midfielder to either block the passing lane, make an interception, or quickly apply pressure if the ball reaches him. If the man on the ball has a good left foot, there is the danger of him playing the ball to City’s right winger. For this reason, the left-back must push up from his position to deny that passing lane. With the pressure applied on the ball, the probability of an accurate ball over the top to the right winger seems small. Therefore, the keeper may need to sweep up so Arsenal can better control the space behind the back line and claim an over-hit ball. The left center back must also be willing and able to defend in a wide position, should the ball be played towards the corner flag.

Outside of playing a rather impressive pass, with his right foot, across the field, to the left-back, the man on the ball does not have many options. He could try to dribble through the press, but that takes a high level of close control to do. If he loses the ball, Arsenal’s compact shape gives them plenty of players to take control of a loose ball. If the press is executed properly, the path of least resistance for the man on the ball will be a pass back to the right center-back.

If this happens, then Arsenal need to all push up the pitch (ideally, your keeper has the willingness to push up the pitch as well and the ability to defend outside of the penalty box). Not only does this potentially lead to some City players in offside positions, but it also serves to maintain their compactness, particularly their vertical compactness. The right midfield can continue pressing the ball. The center forward should look to deny the passing lane to the other center back. If he has an understanding of how to bend his run and a high level of agility, then he could try to apply pressure on the ball or run through to deny a back pass to the keeper3. If the latter, then someone, maybe the left midfielder, must push up to be able to apply pressure to the other center-back, if he receives the ball4. Due to the potential potency of center back who can play with the ball at his feet, in the face of such pressure, Arsenal would benefit from City keeping DeMichelis on the bench, if they wish to play a pressing game. And if the ball played back to the keeper, Arsenal can either continue to push the entire team forward or retreat, allowing City to build-up again, hoping to actually win the ball the next time around or just continue to keep City out of dangerous areas, until they make a mistake.

In Possession, Patience is a Virtue

While out of possession, coordinated aggression seems the best way to prevent City from playing to their strengths. In possession, a more patient approach may prove beneficial. Controlling possession starves the likes of David Silva and Sergio Aguero of the ball. With Aguero coming back from injury and the role he has played this season, City probably do not want him spending too much time closing down center backs or the holding midfield. They want him to save his energy for those 10 meter bursts, either with the ball or without it, when City have the ball in Arsenal territory. Therefore, controlling possession can help to either force City’s key attacking players to expend energy when they do not wish to, or it allows them to take advantage of these players not working with the rest of the team to control space out of possession.

If City opt for greater control out of possession, and look to exploit spaces Arsenal’s attacking shape may leave uncontrolled, then James Milner could play instead of Samir Nasri. From his wide position, he may look to play rather narrow to help Fernando and Fernandinho control the center of the pitch.

Ideally, Arsenal would have a fit trio of Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, and Mikel Arteta, with Ozil ahead of them to give them potentially four players in the center of midfield, with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck pinning City’s back four, in prime positions to exploit Vincent Kompany’s willingness, but lack of ability, to effectively push up the pitch to make a play on the ball or on a player.

While they do not have the ideal players fit to pull this off, they should still look to dominate the center of the pitch. By looking to constantly have a man advantage, such that an option is always available to the man on the ball, Arsenal can patiently build their attacks, allowing them to push two players up top to occupy City’s center backs. With proper movement and ball circulation, Arsenal have the ability to get a player like Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez, etc. on the ball, with space and time, in front of City’s back line. With two players occupying the center backs, a City center back stepping up to challenge the ball, gives Arsenal a chance to move the ball forward to an unmarked player.

Patience in the build-up also allows for Arsenal to push one or two fullbacks higher up the pitch to help prevent the fullbacks from staying narrow and working to close down the player with the ball or to give that player the ability to switch the play, in the scenario described above. Patience in possession gives the team a greater ability to set up their attacking shape to better counter-press their opponent’s attacking transition, limiting the effectiveness of their opponent’s counter attacks. Therefore, the downside of attempting penetrative dribbles or riskier passes is mitigated. With players like Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey, who will take risks in possession, and with City’s ability to exploit uncontrolled spaces, such patience could help make the difference between a tightly contested match at the Etihad and Arsenal constantly being cut apart, leading to the match being over after the first half.

Follow Naveen on Twitter @njm1211

1.If we were to divide the field into six equal vertical columns, from left to right, we have wide area, half-space, central area, central area, half-space, wide area

2.Proactiveness being defined as the level of effort a team has with respect to controlling the space the ball occupies, either occupying the space in resides in at that moment in time, or by directing the ball into a space they control, with the goal of winning possession

3.This example illustrates one of the reasons to prefer Danny Welbeck up front over Olivier Giroud. When Giroud presses, he tends to sell the farm. If his relative inability to continue a pressing run or to change direction, his lack of understanding of how to bend his runs to press and better block passing lanes, and his relative lack of athleticism make him a significantly inferior presser. Therefore, this limits the ability for Arsenal to execute a pressing plan like this

4.How the center back receives the ball also come into play. For example, if he ends of controlling the ball facing his own goal, then the center forward has more reason to shut down the passing lane to the goalkeeper, as the chance of a lateral or forward pass are lower. The characteristics of the man on the ball matter, as well. For example, if the player is one-footed and receives the ball on his weaker foot, he may look to move the ball to his stronger foot, which allows the team more time to get into the next phase of this press. Also, in this situation, a center back with little ability to use his right foot, who gets pulled wide by the pass, has little ability to play a long diagonal ball, giving the pressing side to more aggressively cut off the passing lanes closer to the man on the ball. Little details, like this, can play a big role in the success of a press


Southampton flash fourth place credentials with emphatic win over Arsenal

Southampton ushered in 2015 with a solid two-nil victory over 4th place rivals Arsenal at St. Mary’s Stadium today.

While the Gunners looked disorganized and fragile, the Saints clearly came out with a game plan and executed it to perfection, though it still took two errors for the home side to get the win.

Perhaps Arsenal were still feeling Christmas cheer when they gifted the Saints two goals off two moments of sheer madness in defense.

Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny made the first gaffe. Southampton’s Sadio Mane had gotten momentarily free from Laurent Koscielny but there should have been little doubt that Arsenal’s best and quickest center back would recover. Still, Szczesny must have doubted as he came rushing off his line and then attempted a hasty retreat once he saw Mane’s brilliant curling effort. Arsenal’s Mertesacker tried to save Szczesny’s blushes but Mane’s shot just got past the German’s telescopic legs.

If the first was clearly Szczesny’s fault then the second was a comedy of errors. Southampton fired in yet another simple, direct ball over the top to challenge the left side of Arsenal’s defense and this time Szczesny stayed on his line. The cross came in and was cut out easily by Debuchy who left the ball for Szczesny. Szczesny panicked and made an unnecessary slide clearance which fell to Tadic and the Southampton man fired in first touch. Arsenal fans will be reminded of the calamitous defending Arsenal demonstrated against Birmingham in the League Cup final. 

Or perhaps more credit should be given to Southampton who looked organized and strong throughout the match. Southampton spent most of the match pulling the Arsenal center backs left and right in order to create space and isolate in the center. The result was that the Saints took 13 shots and 10 of them were directly in front of goal, the most dangerous area to concede,

Ronald Koeman’s game plan for the Saints was to generate shots off crosses and his team executed that to perfection, getting five shots off ten crosses, all in the prime area of the pitch. Saints didn’t score off those crosses but that was down more to poor finishing than to lack of chances. Pelle hit the post and Szczesny even made a kick save to keep the score line from ballooning to embarrassing levels.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s game plan was unclear and the Gunners looked increasingly desperate as time wore down. Arsène Wenger chose a center back and defensive midfielder for the double pivot in midfield and with his normal target man, Giroud, suspended for a foolish red card against West Ham handed the diminutive Alexis Sanchez a start at center forward.

This lineup cried out for a defense-first approach, using Alexis as a counter attacking threat but they did anything but. In fact, the Saints’ first goal came from Arsenal having both fullbacks forward, a turnover in the Saints final third, a good switch of play, and a direct ball over the top.

Despite the lesson of defense first getting a win against West Ham, Arsenal were attacking with wild abandon in the 32nd minute of this fixture. Before the Saints’ first goal Arsenal did dominate the number of shots taken, 5-3 and even dominated shots on goal 4-1. But both teams had just one clear cut chance each and all of Arsenal’s other 4 shots were from deep or from outside the box. Hardly the stuff that warranted such an all-hands at the pump approach from Arsenal.

Arsenal had a good chance to score when Alexis was brought down outside the box and his resulting free kick tickled the crossbar. Southampton’s Gardos got a yellow for the tackle but Arsenal fans wanted red and many will complain that moment decided the match.

Alexis produced a great save from Fraser Forster with Arsenal’s only real shot of the second half. Alexis struck low and hard in the prime area but Forster got down quicker than a curry after a night of Wicked Strength Ale.

Arsène Wenger brought on Theo Walcott for the final 35 minutes, hoping the former Southampton man’s blinding speed would open the match. Theo didn’t get a single touch for 20 minutes and finished the match with just 7 touches total, indicative of the well drilled defensive machine that is Southampton. Saints have only allowed 15 goals this season and have the League’s best 9.2 shots allowed per game. Southampton’s defensive plan was to allow Arsenal to throw in pointless aerial crosses to diminutive forwards. Arsenal obliged finishing 6/31 crossing.

Gooners will be looking for excuses for the loss: the referee, injuries, the mistake by Szczesny, if Cazorla had scored, shifting lineups every week, Giroud’s red card last match, the congested fixture list, not buying players in the summer, the loss of Diarra, the loss of Sol Campbell, Henry, Vieira, and even probably Tony Adams  But the way that Arsenal collapse so easily off one or two small errors and then have to chase games is worrying and it’s the one thing that can’t be addressed in the January transfer window.

Unless Arsenal can find a bottle of guts and dram of mental strength they could find themselves relegated from the Champions League next year.



Naveen’s highly leveraged one sentence tactical preview: Arsenal v. Southampton

By Naveen Maliakkal

With Morgan Schneiderlin fit, Southampton would probably play their 4-3-3, which turns into a 4-5-1 when they do not have the ball. However, against Manchester City, they tended to look more like a 4-1-4-1 defensive side. This may have had to do with City’s ability and willingness to exploit the space in front of the back four. In response to this threat, Southampton’s two midfielders have license to press City’s two midfielders, which worked quite well since City had gone with their half-space seeking 4-4-2, albeit without their best half-space exploiter. Schneiderlin played a key role as a presser, helping to shut down City’s midfield. With him in the lineup, Southampton do and can rely on the pressure their midfield can put on the opposition.

Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane would track the fullbacks, which meant that Zabaleta tended to occupy Tadic, while Mane had some more freedom to press City’s midfield from a wide area. His time at Red Bull Salzburg shows. Playing under the current Bayer Leverkusen manager, Roger Schmidt, Mane seems to understand how to press to provide value for Southampton. While they did concede a penalty that did not get called, they seemed to have the better of the first half with this approach.

Without Schneiderlin, Southampton lost control of the match against City. Clearly, Southampton rely on the Frenchman more than any other player as he provides defensive balance and has a keen ability to both occupy space and deal with the dynamic nature of a football match.

A loss of such magnitude has the potential to force a rethink by any club. Also, Southampton have only played one top English side under Ronald Koeman. Therefore, it will be difficult to predict how Southampton will go about this fixture.

In this respect, Southampton’s shape without the ball could reveal something about how they wish to control space against Arsenal. While they did go with a one down-two up in their last match, with Victor Wanyama in the “down” role, City only had two central midfielders. Therefore, Schneiderlin and Stephen Davis could press the two midfielders, helping to cut City in two, aiding in isolating City’s half-space attackers from the ball. This presented itself as a kind of 4-1-4-1; Mane and Tadic often found themselves level with the higher midfield line.

If Koeman has a real concern about Arsenal’s ability to exploit the space in front of the back line and does not respect the ability of Arsenal’s deeper-positioned players on the ball, then Southampton could present as a kind of tight 4-5-1, with Pelle up top, freed from defensive responsibility, acting as a target man. Again, they will look to apply pressure once the ball enters midfield, but from a deeper defensive position.

With Arsenal probably looking to play a trio in midfield in a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 formation, Southampton could opt for an aggressive, higher-pressing 4-2-3-1, with Wanyama and Jack Cork operating as two sixes and Steven Davis operating ahead of them. Tadic and Mane would look to press the fullbacks, while Pelle and Davis would work to prevent the ball from moving from wide areas, back to the center, in an effort to control that space.

When they defend deeper, they do shift their team ball side quite a bit. Against City, this led to the right side becoming congested. Had City circulated possession better and had a half-space attacking left-back, they could have caused major problems for Southampton. Therefore, the ideal way of possession play against Southampton seems to involve moving the ball to one side, remaining compact in possession to circulate possession, in addition to improving a potential counter/gegen-press¹, creating that space on the weak side, moving the ball to the weak side before the defense can flow to that side, allowing the side to control a more advantageous attacking space.

This could lead to Arsenal clustering on the left, with Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, Danny Welbeck, and Aaron Ramsey/Alexis Sanchez interacting on that side. This could give Ramsey/Sanchez, whoever occupies the right/right-center space and Calum Chambers plenty of space to exploit.

Now such a manner of playing would have a greater chance of success if either Kieran Gibbs or Nacho Monreal play. If either is fit, then Arsenal’s ability to move Southampton around immensely improves. However, if Mathieu Flamini has to play at left-back, Arsenal lack the quality on the ball or the advanced positioning necessary to exploit the space, as Flamini probably opts to stay with his back line.

They also need someone to operate in holding midfield. This could involve playing Aaron Ramsey or Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain in that role, with instructions to play a reserved role, as Chamberlain did in the season finale against Newcastle, two seasons ago. It could also involve playing Calum Chambers as a holding midfielder, with Hector Bellerin at right-back. Either way, it seems that Arsenal will have to hope that someone can adapt to a novel position, if both left backs cannot play.

In possession, Southampton seem set to suffer due to the absence of Schneiderlin. Although he does not operate defensively as the deepest midfielder, he often drops deep to receive the ball and build Southampton’s attacks from the back. Jack Cork would probably function in this capacity, if he plays. While he does not have the dynamism of Schneiderlin, he does offer Southampton a sure presence on the ball.

However, if Toby Alderweireld has to operate in midfield instead, then Southampton will struggle to build from the back. With center backs and deeper midfielders, who lack the quality to successfully build attacks from the back, Arsenal’s high pressing, despite its obvious flaws² could create problems for the Saints. Also, if they stay sufficiently compact in possession, Southampton, with this midfield, could struggle to move the ball against a potential counter-press.

Another thing to observe from the City match is that Southampton do not counter attack as well as one would expect. Even with the likes of Pelle, operating in a similar role to Olivier Giroud, Schneiderlin, Davis, and Tadic, do not seem to make the best decisions as to when to dribble and when to pass. This limits their ability to exploit forward space quickly, allowing a team to transition into their defensive shape or to better counter-press the Saints. While Arsenal will probably not transition into a deeper defensive phase as quickly as City or keep as many men back, and may not look to counter-press like they should, such ineffectiveness on the counter could lead to Southampton failing to exploit spaces that Arsenal concede in possession.

Southampton also have problems in possession, particularly with their desire for width. Despite having two inverted players in Tadic and Mane, Koeman wants his teams to cross the ball quite a bit. They average a league high 29 crosses per game. This desire to work the ball wide, and cross the ball into the box, may explain why they have attempted 8% of their shots in the six-yard box, 55% in the 18 yard box, and only 37% from outside of the box, the third-lowest percentage in the English Premier League.

Such an approach has problems in containing counter-attacks. Emphasizing width and forward movement of possession can lead to too many turnovers with a team shape that is too spread out. Saido Mane’s inconsistent control of the ball can exacerbate the turnovers issue.  With such a wide formation, there exists too much ground to cover in order to put adequate pressure on the ball and shut off passing lanes. By the time they could do either, the opponent has probably already moved the ball into more advantageous spaces, bypassed defenders, and is well on their way to creating a quality shot.

This problem comes to the forefront when Southampton have to chase a result later in the game. Koeman will probably remove a midfielder and bring on someone like Shane Long. This leads to Southampton looking like a 4-2-4 side. Late in the game, it seems unreasonable to expect a team to have the energy to play with the intensity they need to cover space, once the opponent wins the ball. Therefore, such an approach leaves them more susceptible to counter-attacks. For us Arsenal fans, such openness when chasing a match should not be unfamiliar.

Ultimately, Southampton, with Schneiderlin, look like an effective defensive unit³, who do not look particularly special in possession. Give them a lead, and they feel right at home, as the poor positional play of many English Premier League teams, especially when chasing matches, poses little threat to their solid defensive shape. However, even with Schneiderlin, this team appears to have significant issues if they have to recover from a losing position. While they control space well out of possession, their relative inability to control space while in possession, particularly to control space immediately after they lose the ball, makes it difficult for them to rescue the points. This should only worsen without their most important player.

Without Schneiderlin, their problems in possession will probably increase. However, while it seems like they should suffer out of possession, they may adjust their team shape to maintain their ability to control space out of possession. Therefore, in what seems a growing theme in the English Premier League, concerning matches between the better clubs, the inability to control space probably with the ball leads to the first goal playing a greater role in determining the final outcome. So for all the musings I have put forth, given the issues of both clubs in possession when chasing a match, it may have been more efficient to simply write, “Whoever scores first will win.”4

¹Anytime someone says gegenpress, think counter-press. Gegenpressing strictly refers to a system of pressing done immediately after possession is lost.
²Lack of coordination, lack of pressing triggers (it is very tiring to press all the time, so you can use pressing triggers to selectively press once the ball moves into a particular area. This not only helps to conserve energy but probably helps in coordinating pressure, as it simplifies the decision-making process for players), lack of pressing traps (dangle the carrot of apparent space to exploit, have a player dribble/pass the ball into the space, spring the trap/collapse on the ball), etc.
³For those wondering, Southampton concede 8.7 shots per game, second to Arsenal at 8.2. Opponent also attempt 49% of their shots from outside of the box, good for 4th in the EPL. All stats for this piece come from Whoscored.com. (Also, Arsenal are susceptible to conceding from crosses, topping the League in goals conceded from crossed balls)
4 Though, like an American bank, post-Continental Illinois bailout, I am highly leveraged with such a proclamation. And unlike a United States bank, I do not have an implicit guarantee from the government to bail me out. Though poor feedback loops, not imposing costs on bad ideas, and failing to reward good ideas, might protect the persistence of rather poor narratives/points-of-view/predictions, which may explain why so many narratives exist concerning sports, making it frustrating, but also allows people to create the story they want to create. So maybe I would not suffer much of a loss if I get it wrong with my highly leveraged one sentence preview.