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Hasenhuttl’s Return to 4-4-2 has Saved Southampton’s Season

One team’s form that has slightly gone under the radar is Southampton. Ever since their 9-0 defeat to Leicester, there were massive question marks on whether manager Ralph Hasenhuttl would last the week. It was the biggest defeat a team had suffered since Manchester United’s 9-0 win over Ipswich back in 1995. This defeat was more significant, considering the finances in the league, you rarely see such high scores anymore. The red card does have a massive effect on any team, but not the extent of conceding nine goals.

Many folks, like me, on twitter, began to wonder if Hasenhuttl was as good as we all thought. Southampton are, at best, functional, which is a shame considering just how fun his Leipzig side was in their debut Bundesliga season. The 3-5-2 formation just looked so stale. I assumed it was only used last season to improve the team defensively, but instead, they persisted with it. Having the extra body in defence did help a pretty weak side stay up, but it took away any attacking threat, especially when Valery and Bertrand weren’t offering enough width. Southampton were already lacking numbers in attack, and taking away more players in the front line made them a lot less exciting.
To save his job, Hasenhuttl had to do something. After defeats to Leicester and Everton and a Carabao Cup exit to Manchester City, Hassenhuttl scraped the back three and moved to a 4-4-2, a formation he consistently used when in the Leipzig dugout.

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If we’re looking at the Premier League from the 23rd November, the first time Hasenhuttl used the 4-4-2, in a 2-2 draw against Arsenal, then Southampton would be 4th in the table. Their impressive turn-around has coincided with victories over Chelsea and Tottenham, keeping clean sheets against both London clubs. While their attacking numbers have improved slightly, taking 13.8 shots per game instead of their usual 12.3, it’s in defence where the team has become a lot more interesting. Southampton have faced 199 shots this season, with 60% of those coming during the period where three at the back was favoured. They’ve stopped opponents from dominating games, which can be best shown through their pressing. Southampton’s pressing has intensified throughout the winter period, and the statistics show this. Southampton are allowing 7.55 passes per defensive action, the joint least in the league. It’s also a massive improvement compared to the 9.24 passes they were allowing per defensive action at the beginning of the season.

This change meant some significant tweaks to personnel. Due to Vestergaard’s lack of pace, there wasn’t a chance he could play in this more attacking system. Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek, two young and athletic defenders have formed a good partnership. Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares, while not near the level they were four years ago, are still solid enough at the back. But most importantly, they’ve enabled the wingers in front of them to focus primarily on ball progression.

The midfield is where the most significant improvements can be seen. In the last nine games where Southampton have played a 4-4-2, James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg have played every minute. Other than his set-pieces, Ward-Prowse has failed to impress me. He’s never been a consistent creator from open-play and seemed to only play for his magic from a dead ball situation. Højbjerg has always been an exciting player. A great distributor who wasn’t afraid to put in a tough challenge, Højbjerg finally found his place in the team, after struggling under Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes.

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The 4-4-2 has allowed Southampton to play with genuine wingers again. Nathan Redmond has remained an ever-present either on the right or as a second striker, while Moussa Djenepo or Stuart Armstrong fill in on the opposite side. Redmond has been the most improved player under Hassenhuttl. He has always been a great dribbler, but his end product is still quite not there. Last season, Redmond went from 0 goal contributions under Hughes to 10 under his current coach. He has only contributed to 3 goals so far this season, but his performances have improved.

Danny Ings has easily been Southampton’s best player this season. He has been the only player in this team who has consistently put his chances away. Many of Ings’ goals have come from inside the penalty area, and has never been better than during these nine games. Ings has scored 8 goals, the most in the league. While Ings hasn’t quite found his striking partner, (Long has primarily played, but Obafemi and Redmond have played there too) there is no doubting his importance to this side.

So let’s look at their 1-0 over Tottenham, and see what they’re doing so well. Let’s start defensively. During Tottenham’s buildup, Southampton were consistently defending in a 3-4-3, with Djenepo joining the front two and Bertrand taking the Belgian’s place. It allowed them to simultaneously cut off the passing options to Ndombele (later Lo Celso) and Sissoko. It forced the full-backs to either drop insanely deep to give their teammates an option, or move further forward and hope Alderweireld or Vertonghen could find them with a long ball. The forward three wouldn’t press the centre-backs during these situations, because their goal is for Spurs to lose possession through a misplaced pass. The long pass became a regular method for the Belgian defenders, but a failed one. Out of the combined 35 long balls attempted by Vertonghan and Alderweireld, only 6 were completed. Southampton forced two players, considered to be very comfortable on the ball, to resort to hopeful balls into the path of Harry Kane.

On the occasions where Spurs would either find their full-backs in space, or Sissoko would drop deep and attempt to dribble through the midfield, the players would quickly shift to a 4-4-2. This would give less space, especially in the wide areas, for spurs to transition play and create chances. Aurier and Sessegnon would be crowded by their opposing full-back, winger and midfield. The sheer amount of ground covered by Højbjerg and Ward-Prowse was impressive. The pair were always there to support their teammates in keeping the Tottenham wide players isolated, forcing them to play it back to their own half, or put in a poor cross for Bednarek and Stephens to efficiently deal with.

Both full-backs were playing different yet effective roles. Bertrand would regularly push up and support Djenepo either through a diagonal run inside, or giving him a short pass option behind him. Cedric, on the other hand, would have more of a reserved role, slotting into the backline, making the back three. This was common throughout the game:

 

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Cedric (number two) stays behind the halfway line, while Bertrand (number twenty-one) is alongside the forwards, and ahead of his winger. This was very effective in both attack and defence. It allowed Southampton to exploit the space left from Aurier’s forward runs and Alderweireld’s lack of pace while having the right numbers if Spurs managed to get out of their own half.

In attack, Southampton can be best described as direct. Some of their attacks that contained some excellent interplay between their forwards. But generally, the Saints were looking to get the ball in the opposition third as quickly as possible. Stephens and Bednarek would look to send balls straight into Ings and Redmond. While the probability of the pair beating Alderweireld and Vertonghen in the air is very low, they primarily did this to win the second ball. Over and over again, Ings would lose the aerial battle, but at least three players would be close to win the ball back. Southampton’s lack of creativity is something that hasn’t been addressed since the departure of Dusan Tadic. Avoiding the midfield and taking advance of the stamina and speed of the forward line is an effective method for the short term.

As seen from Bertrand average position, Southampton were frequently attacking down the left side. In fact, 44% of their attacks were coming down Djenepo and Bertrand’s side. As mentioned, this was down to Spurs’ weakness in that area, but to benefit the players on the pitch. With most of the attacks coming down the left, it allowed Armstrong to make runs into the box and cause plenty of problems for the Tottenham defenders. During the second minute of the game, Djenepo put in a pretty dangerous ball into the box, with Ings, Armstrong, Redmond and Ward-Prowse all available. While Djenepo did waste this chance, it was a sign of things to come, with Tottenham struggling with the number of players pushing forward.

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Ings was a vital cog in his team’s performance. The former Liverpool forward not only scored the winning goal but helped his teammates all over the pitch. Ings would drift to both flanks, aiding Djenepo and Armstrong, while also holding onto the ball well. Ings completed 4 dribbles in this game, failing to be dispossessed. Not only was his attacking play good, but defensively he did a lot to help his teammates. He was pressing well, tracking back when Spurs broke quickly and worked his socks off. Ings was substituted at the 75th minute, likely because of the shift he put in.

The midfielders also deserve plenty of credit for their performances. James Ward-Prowse fits seamlessly in a double-pivot, while Højbjerg continues to show why he is undroppable. The Danish international completed the most passes for his side, while also attempting 12 long balls to help push his team further up the pitch. Ward-Prowse played a more attacking role, joining the forwards in attack, at the same time always tracking back to help his midfield partner. The England international completed 9 tackles in this game, more than anyone else on the pitch.

At the start of the season, I put Southampton down as my team to watch. I like a lot of their players and have backed Hasenhuttl since his arrival in the South Coast. The change of formation was needed and is clearly getting more out of the talent at the club. There are still issues regarding creativity that need to be addressed in the summer. But for now, this change in approach could be enough to not only keep Southampton in the division but challenge Wolves for that seventh spot.

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