How Wreck-it Ralph changed Southampton into a pressing machine, only Liverpool have won possession more in the final third this season… and there are no passengers
- You will struggle to find better drilled side in Premier League than Southampton
- It’s a given that every man runs his socks off for manager Ralph Hasenhuttl
- When Southampton lose the ball, there is a burning desire to win it back quickly
You will struggle to find a better drilled side in the Premier League than Southampton.
Each and every player knows his job to the nth degree. They are a pressing machine — only Liverpool have won possession more in the final third this season — and there are no passengers.
As manager Ralph Hasenhuttl himself says, you cannot be ‘half-pregnant’. Either everybody presses or nobody does, because it doesn’t work if only one or two players go. There’s a tremendous team energy.
You will struggle to find a better drilled side in top flight than Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton
It’s a given that every man runs his socks off for Hasenhuttl, who has lost only three of his last 20 league games.
When Southampton lose the ball, there is a burning desire to win it back quickly.
They swarm around their opponents. Theo Walcott scored against Arsenal on Wednesday and I’ve never seen him so defensively responsible. He is now much more of a complete player, both with the ball and without.
In midfield, Oriol Romeu has taken over from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg as the man who never deserts his defence. He’s forever in front of his back line and no Premier League player has made more tackles this season.
In Jannik Vestergaard and Jan Bednarek, Southampton have as good a central defensive partnership as you will see in the Premier League.
Vestergaard has caught my eye the most, particularly with his passing. He is to Southampton what Virgil van Dijk is to Liverpool. Not only is the 6ft 6in Dane more than adept at fulfilling his defensive duties, he is so confident with the ball at his feet.
Vestergaard can sidefoot passes into midfield, punch diagonals into the wide players and miss the midfield entirely by pinging long passes directly into the front two.
Southampton ask questions of their opponents this way. Often when building attacks, the two wide players, Walcott and Stuart Armstrong, will move inside, into pockets in midfield.
If the opposition full back does not go with them, Walcott or Armstrong can get the ball, turn and be dangerous. If the opposition full back does go with them, Southampton have space to clip balls into the channels for their workaholics up top, Danny Ings and Che Adams, to chase.
When Southampton opened the scoring against Arsenal, it was like climbing a ladder as they went from the bottom of the pitch to the top.
Winger Theo Walcott (R) is now much more of a complete player, both with the ball and without
It started with the confidence and technique of Vestergaard driving the ball into Adams, who had dropped into the centre circle to receive it.
Arsenal centre back Gabriel had followed him but Adams showed strength and awareness to turn him. He fed Walcott, whose starting position was central rather than wide, and once he was on the other side of the Arsenal defence, there was no catching him.
It was a fine finish and a quality move. Southampton have a really good balance to their play. When you press the ball, you’ve got to be tenacious and aggressive in your mindset, but when in possession of the ball you need calmness and composure.
Hasenhuttl’s players are able to flick that switch. They can hound opponents with high intensity but then be cool in their passing.
Last season that wasn’t there but they’ve gone to the next level. They are a supremely organised group under Hasenhuttl and they can be unpredictable, too.
Defender Jannik Vestergaard (R) has caught my eye the most, particularly with his passing
Season at a glance
Twenty minutes into the game against Arsenal, Southampton sprung a surprise, with James Ward-Prowse moving from the middle of midfield to the right wing. Winger Armstrong moved to a central position and was offering support to Ward-Prowse on the right while Walcott was also hovering in that area.
As a result, Arsenal were completely outnumbered on that side and any opponent would find that difficult to pick up. Hasenhuttl has those surprises up his sleeve — a tactical switch that can confuse opponents.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s equaliser for Arsenal showed how hard you have to work to score against Saints. The talented Bukayo Saka had to bounce off three opponents just to create the opportunity.
Southampton are well aware of the quality of their boss. Sources close to the club maintain Hasenhuttl is the best manager they’ve had since Mauricio Pochettino. That’s how much of an impact they feel he has had.
All of his hard work and diligence on the training ground are now bearing fruit, with them battling at the top of the Premier League table. Win at St Mary’s Stadium and they could be within touching distance of leaders Liverpool and seven points clear of Saturday’s opponents Manchester City.
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