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.