It is almost poetic that Tottenham face Southampton this weekend, with Mauricio Pochettino having done with the Saints exactly what André Villas-Boas tried to do with Spurs in his ill-fated seventeen months at White Hart Lane. Sunday’s visitors are every bit the archetypal modern football team, with a clearly-defined system, multiple angles of attack and, above all, an effective pressing system the likes of which the Premier League has never seen.
Southampton’s methods and their positive results are the result of their Argentine manager’s education under football-hipster favourite Marcelo Bielsa, whose high-line and intensive pressing theories have transferred seamlessly to England’s south coast. The Saints’ relentlessness means that their opponents can never be comfortable on the ball and therefore find it very difficult to create chances to score.
The effectiveness of their hyperactivity is proven by the stats: only Crystal Palace and Liverpool make more tackles than their 21.6 per game and only Stoke City and Aston Villa make more fouls than their 13.1 per game. The end result is that the opponents have to be quick and accurate to create shooting opportunities, which is easier said than done: only Manchester City concede fewer shots than their 10.4 per game.
Last season’s victories over Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea were early examples of the excellence of their system, while Sir Alex Ferguson claimed they were the best side to visit Old Trafford in 2012-13. It is the solidity of this platform that allows attackers such as Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana to play to their maximum potential, receiving widespread acclaim and international call-ups in the process.
Southampton’s system is no less defined in attack than in defence. They move the ball forward quickly, using vertical one-touch interchanges aimed at creating and exploiting space around the opposition centre-backs. The hastiness of their strategy can go too far – they have the most offsides per game in Premier League – and to the uninitiated it can look like a slapdash, barely-defined approach, but it is more or less the same one that has brought Borussia Dortmund such success in Germany.
Despite their recent struggles, Pochettino’s is still a very good side: one that deserves respect for its commitment to an idea and its incredible persistence; one that could conceivably defeat a Tottenham side once again in upheaval mode.
If Spurs have a saving grace, it is that Paulo Gazzaniga will be in goal for the Saints. The young Argentine has promise but is still extremely raw and prone to the odd howler. Goodness knows what the home team’s approach will be after AVB’s departure and the West Ham debacle on Wednesday, but first and foremost they should aim to work Gazzaniga as quickly as they can, before the Southampton press makes getting a shot away impossible.
Academy boys Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw will play at full-back and will depend greatly on the guidance of more experienced centre-backs Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren. The four are more talented than many observers would expect but have only kept one clean sheet in their short time as a unit. Despite Tottenham’s problems converting chances into goals, they should be able to make chances as long as they can get through the first press.
The men making said press will be Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork, two of the Premier League’s most admirable second-band players. Schneiderlin is an all-action tackling machine, whose 3.9 tackles per game sees him once again in the top five for that metric in the division. Cork is the more stylish of the two – a less gifted Michael Carrick, perhaps – and his excellent positioning and ball retention skills will be important as the Saints look to frustrate the home side.
Pochettino has a few options to consider when selecting his front four. If he chooses to play with a 4-2-3-1, then one would expect the striker to be Pablo Osvaldo, who has alternated starts with Rickie Lambert in recent weeks. Behind him, either James Ward-Prowse or Steven Davis will start on the right, with Adam Lallana in the middle and Jay Rodriguez on the left.
If Pochettino decides to go with both Osvaldo and Lambert, then either Davis or Rodriguez will drop out so that Lallana can take their wide berth. The side then reverts to a 4-4-2. This remains rather unlikely, however – the staggered structure of the 4-2-3-1 is fundamental to the defensive system, so to switch to a flatter 4-4-2 to accommodate two strikers would be a big gamble.
In any case, the visitors’ attack will be co-ordinated and well-prepared. While they cannot expect Tottenham to defend as naively as they did against Liverpool last weekend, they will doubtless know how to get at Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches. Tottenham’s defensive midfielders, whoever they may be on Sunday, will have to be at the top of their game.
For the home side, it is next to impossible to predict a line-up or a strategy, given that we do not know who will be in the home dugout. If Tim Sherwood continues, one can only hope that he goes for a more refined approach than in the West Ham game.
Of course, one can see the logic in telling players who have struggled to make clear chances this season simply to chuck the ball into the mixer and see what happens, that will rarely lead to positive results in the Premier League in this day and age – especially against a side as good as Pochettino’s Southampton.