This piece originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
Has anyone got a spare ticket for Tottenham versus Southampton? For the hopelessly addicted tactics junkies among us, Saturday’s game at White Hart Lane is one to savour. Unless newly-crowned Player of the Year and Master of the Universe Gareth Bale blows the opposition away, it should be a close one. While Spurs have only lost one of their last eleven games at home, Southampton haven’t conceded in their last three away fixtures.
The two managers match up quite pleasingly for the neutral: in much the same way as André Villas-Boas has won over his prominent critics on Fleet Street, Mauricio Pochettino has won grudging respect for bringing a sophisticated new style to Southampton.
The decision to dispense with Nigel Adkins, the manager that won the club successive promotions, was roundly criticised in national media, but the relegation worries that troubled the club under his stewardship have been happily eased by his Argentine successor, with the Saints now sitting in a relatively comfortable thirteenth place, seven points away from the drop zone.
That is not to say that Adkins did a bad job or needed to be fired, but Southampton have undeniably traded up and are reaping the benefits of what was an overwhelmingly unpopular decision. For having the sheer cojones to make such a bold call, Saints chairman Nicola Cortese deserves immense credit.
Under Pochettino, Southampton have improved immensely. Their tactics have evolved, their technical players have been more involved and their defensive work, while questionable at times, has been noticeably better. They have beaten Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea and done so on their own terms.
They play a 4-2-3-1 that will be familiar to Tottenham fans: the defensive line is high; the midfield duo is energetic and productive; and they press as though their lives depended on stopping the opposition having the ball for more than five seconds.
While Adkins’ team selections gave the impression that he had plucked names out of a hat an hour before kick-off, Pochettino has played a settled eleven, starting with Artur Boruc, the winner of Southampton’s bizarre early season merry-go-round selection policy which saw Kelvin Davis and Paulo Gazzaniga take turns at letting in lots and lots of goals each week.
Starlets Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw play as energetic full-backs, offering width and lateral passing options, while Jos Hooiveld and Maya Yoshida play as conventional but cultured centre-backs. While the latter two are prone to dropping the occasional clanger, they are both comfortable ball-players, averaging over three accurate long passes per game apiece, and will play an important role in maintaining Southampton’s high tempo.
In front of the defence, Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork form a midfield pair with attributes that compliment not only each other, but those around them. Schneiderlin is the all-action dynamo that makes the system work: his average of 3.9 interceptions per game is a Premier League high, while his average number of tackles per game, 4.2, sees him place second behind Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva; on the ball, he completes 51.6 passes per game, a figure only his midfield partner can beat for Southampton.
Cork is quite something: an English player without real national equivalent or precedent, which may be why he didn’t make the grade at Chelsea or Burnley. They simply didn’t recognise his ability. After all, when a footballer comes through English youth systems recognising the importance of space and positioning, quickness of thought and importance of technique, we tend to tell him to stop being such a fucking pansy and run around a bit.
For me, he should have been playing a starting role as pivote – the Busquets role, in layman’s terms – for Team GB at last year’s Olympics, but it wasn’t to be. Nonetheless, he has found his home at Southampton and has had a fantastic second half to the season. He will probably come a cropper when up against the more assertive Scott Parker and Mousa Dembélé, but he will not go down without a fight.
On the right, Saints captain Adam Lallana plays a role similar to Gylfi Sigurðsson’s on the opposite flank at Spurs. Lallana hasn’t always sparkled this season – if I was consulting The Big Book of Football Clichés I would say he has been a victim of his own versatility – but he is capable of producing something out of nothing.
Northern Ireland midfielder Steven Davis has played the central attacking midfield role of late, linking those around him with short, smart passes and making little darting runs that open gaps for the man to his left, Jay Rodriguez.
Rodriguez cost Southampton £7m in the summer, an eye-watering amount to pay for a fifteen-goal-a-season Championship striker, but he has come close to justifying the outlay in recent weeks, with intelligent and creative attacking play culminating in goals and assists in the wins over Liverpool, Chelsea and Reading.
Up front is the star of the Saints show, lower-league journeyman-cum-Premier League wrecking ball Rickie Lambert. He is their top scorer with fourteen, their leading assist provider with five and their most creative outlet, setting up an average of 2.2 shots on goal per game. Like Grant Holt last season, Lambert has proven that there is quality in England’s lower divisions – although he and his rotund former strike-partner have done so too late in their careers to earn big moves or international caps.
When looking at the two sides’ heatmaps from recent fixtures it becomes readily apparent that space is likely to be at a premium in what will be a congested and frantic midfield battle. The playing area will be small and turnovers of possession will be common, at least in the opening stages. While Steven Davis is not in the same league as Gareth Bale, he may win the tactical battle between the two by staying closer to his colleagues and forming a coherent midfield three.
As Jay Rodriguez tends to drift inside and play very close to Lambert, the game’s key player is likely to be Kyle Walker. Afforded space to get forward, he will be able to focus on breaking through Southampton’s defensive line via simple diagonal passes or dribbles past Shaw and from there he will have numerous options to create chances for himself or others.
It is therefore important that the returning Aaron Lennon plays an effective positional game against Shaw. While he will fancy himself against his talented but raw direct opponent, it would arguably be of greater benefit to Spurs should he focus simply on dragging Shaw out of his left-back zone, leaving the path clear for Walker to advance.
On the opposite flank, Spurs will have a similar problem: with Clint Dempsey prone to drifting inside and taking shots with his right foot, he must be wary of leaving Clyne free to influence the game in the same way as Walker.
To return to The Big Book of Football Clichés, AVB has a selection headache as Emmanuel Adebayor returns from injury to challenge Jermain Defoe as starting striker. With both out of form, each would be as good a bet as the other and whoever starts will probably score, with Hooiveld and Yoshida all but certain to allow at least one good chance in the game.
It could get bitty and tense if it gets to half-time at 0-0, but with Bale at the peak of his powers and Southampton’s centre-backs likely to come under sustained pressure, it’s hard to see anything other than a home win.