Why the 424 makes Hassenhuttl’s Saints Soar: the secrets to Southampton’s European charge
After a disappointing start to the campaign Southampton now find themselves in 6th position, level on points with 4th who themselves are only 4 points behind 1st. The 1-0 loss away to Crystal Palace on the opening day of the season was then followed up by a 5-2 home defeat courtesy of Tottenham Hotspur. These results left them lamenting wasted chances and exposed their vulnerability to transition based football. Pacey players such as Wilfried Zaha and Heung Min Son caused a variety of problems with explosive movement, fine dribbling and cutting edge in the final third. However, they turned it around with back to back wins against Burnley and West Brom 1-0 and 2-0 respectively. After salvaging a point in injury time away at Stamford Bridge, they then dismissed a resurgent Everton side 2-0 who lacked their usual attacking fluidity. Then they edged out a 7 goal thriller against an invigorated Aston Villa side in gameweek 7 before breezing past a hapless Newcastle 2-0 without their leading talisman in the form of Danny Ings. However with Ings now back in side after recovering from injury, they have won 3 from 7 over the hectic Christmas period, with Ings himself back amongst the goals including a sublime chip against Liverpool to give them all 3 points on Monday night. Here we look at the secrets behind their promising start and look to establish their credentials as a top half side.
Since Hassenhuttl’s appointment in December 2018, Southampton have attempted to impose a fluid and methodical style of football relying a few key principles. These principles began when Hassenhuttl took charge of German side FC Inglostadt where his philosophies were first imposed, which were then tweaked and implemented further at RB Leipzig. His original high pressing 433 at Ingolstadt has been adapted into a 4222 or a 424. This formation is beneficial for him to execute a high pressing, attack minded and positionally dynamic style. This involves wide players tucking into halfspaces whilst in possession to encourage full backs to get forward. Southampton possess a variety of attributes in full backs with right back Kyle Walker Peters possessing great pace and nimble feet with left back Ryan Bertrand showing signs of a more all round package priding himself on final third crosses. They are a mainstay of the defence who rely on patient possession in their own third, taking their time to build up from the back.
This all starts with their goalkeeper Alex McCarthy who has missed just 3 games all year, these being the FA Cup matches against Tottenham back in January and the Monday night clash against Liverpool. McCarthy shows a range of distribution with the ability to trust his central defenders and midfielders with the ball, or use an outlet ball to high full backs as a method of bypassing the opposition press. This relaxed manner playing out has encouraged central defenders Jan Bednarek and Jannick Vestergaard to be comfortable in possession with McCarthy always being available as an option. This methodology has helped develop the pairing more complete defenders. They have the ability to be calm in possession whilst being physically imposing out of possession standing at 6ft 2 and 6ft 6 respectively. This has also helped them in possession being a threat from set pieces, which has been evident this year. Vestergaard is already 1 goal short of his best goalscoring season which he achieved in 16/17 with Borussia Monchengladbach. These players have been part of a defence which boasts 8 clean sheets this season, joint top this season Aston Villa ahead of Man City (7) and Spurs (6).
The back 4 change into more of a back 3 in possession allowing either Ryan Bertrand to drop in as part of the 3, or one of the midfielders to drop in to get the ball moving through the thirds. This would most likely be Oriol Romeu, which would encourage Bertrand and Walker-Peters to act as wingbacks to support forward players. As a result, this leaves James Ward-Prowse available to receive the ball between lines and look to play forward and recycle possession. With Romeu and Ward-Prowse contrasting stylistically, they are a perfect partnership of regaining possession and distributing efficiently. Ward Prowse has the ability to pick a pass between lines and look to be the catalyst to get the front 4 creating and combining in the final 3rd. This can be done by utilizing his range of passing from switching play to incisive balls between lines or into channels. Ward Prowse boats the 6th most passes in the league this year with 1157 with an average of 68.06 passes per match, with Liverpool’s Andy Robertson achieving the most with 1265.
The 424 which Hassenhuttl has implemented can provide many qualities to benefit a side which prides itself on defensive solidarity and fluidity in the final third. Firstly in possession it allows the wide players (Armstrong and Walcott) to stretch the play to allow full backs to support on the ball side. Furthermore it allows the respective full backs to be expressive in both the middle and final thirds. They can either overlap opposition fullbacks allowing wide players to occupy vacant halfspaces ot they themselves can position themselves in halfspaces for crosses for runners to attack. They have this license due to the 2 centre backs and 2 centre midfielders staying defensively solid and creating a box to shut off service into opposition front man.
Southampton movement patterns and shape in possession
This box can then shuffle across should ball go into channel allowing players to recover into shape once ball is lost. Out of possession the front 4 can initially set up high to prevent opposition players playing out from the back which was evident in their 1-0 against Liverpool on Monday night. Should a team attempt to play out the front 4 are already locked on to the back 4 resulting in either a central ball through the lines or a long ball which is more likely to be won by centre backs with a great aerial presence. Should the ball be played central, the wide players can tuck inside to create an overload against a midfield 3 which will then result in a period of possession for the opposition. This will likely lead to a counter press encouraging the opposition to either play through the press or bypass by sending a long 50/50 ball.
A large part of Southampton’s success has relied on the goalscoring prowess of Danny Ings. The Englishman scored a total of 22 goals last year in the league which was joint 2nd with Arsenals’ Pierre Emerick Aubameyang with Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy winning the Golden Boot with 23. This tally of 22 is the 3rd most that a Southampton player has scored in a premier league season, behind James Beattie in 2002/03 (23) and Matt Le Tissier in 1993/94 (25). Ings can provide a range of goals from clinical finishes in the box to curling efforts outside of the box implying he has the ability to be more complete and not score just one type of goal. Furthermore he is very quick in engaging the press for Southampton leading to a variety of mistakes which he duly takes advantage of. This was evident in his goals against Wolves and Crystal Palace last season, reacting quickest to mistakes from Coady and Milivojevic respectively. Ings currently has an xG per 90 minutes of 0.38 and an xG himself of 4.51. Lets see how that compares to other strikers in the league:
xG per 90 minutes of Premier League Top Scorers
With a consistent goal threat, pacey and versatile wide players and defenders with authoritative stature Southampton possess all the characteristics of an effective and clinical side. Their midfield comprising of the perfect balance between ball winning and ball playing, allows other to be expressive and dynamic in final third areas. With a goalkeeper showing signs of productive distribution and centre backs being composed and calm in possession, this allows those further in front to create chances whilst hassling and harrying opposition defences whilst out of possession. Southampton are proving to be a potent and a well balanced side which will enable them to hopefully to establish themselves as one of the outsiders looking to break into the elite of the top flight. With an important run of fixtures ahead of them, and with main man Ings back fit and firing, only time will tell if the Saints will go marching on to European qualification.