This article originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
Having recovered from a distinctly wobbly spell with two successive wins, Southampton arrive at White Hart Lane fancying their chances of taking at least a point. They will find it hard to do so – their defence has been leaky of late while their midfield is now hampered by injury – but with Tottenham seemingly lurching from one disaster to the next at the moment, anything is possible.
If Southampton have reason to be confident, it is their much-vaunted pressing system. They make 21.9 tackles per game, the second highest tally in the Premier League, and 13.9 interceptions. More important than the numbers, striking as they are, is the area in which they make these defensive actions: high up the pitch, close to the opponents’ goal.
The relentlessness of their territorial pressure means that it their opponents find it very hard to control the game or take shots, while they themselves have to do relatively little to fashion goalscoring opportunities. Mauricio Pochettino’s team concedes 9.6 shots per game on average, the lowest figure in the division by far. At the other end, they take 14.2, making them the seventh most prolific Premier League side.
Of course, these are just numbers: not all of the shots Southampton have taken will have been clear-cut chances, while in recent weeks they have tended to make up for their stinginess at the back by making sure that the few chances that come their opponents’ way were absolutely golden. Still, it is an extremely impressive and reliable method of ensuring statistical domination.
Gone are the days when Nigel Adkins used to rotate the goalkeeper: Artur Boruc is the undisputed number one at St Mary’s at the moment and has had an impressive season between the sticks, his infamous brain-fart at the Emirates aside.
Nathaniel Clyne will play at right-back, having recently returned from injury, while tearful England megastar and rumour mill favourite Luke Shaw continues on the left. The full-backs are of key importance in Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1, acting as outlets by hugging the touchline and aggressively bombing up and down the pitch, contributing equally at both ends of the pitch.
Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren will play at centre-back, both playing as forceful stoppers looking to break up the opposition’s attacks and then start their own sides’. Of the Saints’ regular starters, only Morgan Schneiderlin plays more passes per game than Fonte and Lovren, and both have admirable completion figures to boot – 82.8% and 81.3% respectively. To cap it all off, both are major threats from set-pieces, having scored a combined five goals this season.
Ahead of them, perennial statistical outlier Schneiderlin will continue to very skilfully kick the living shit out of anything that comes near him. The Frenchman’s 3.8 tackles per game is second only to Claudio Yacob’s 4.1 in the Premier Division, while at Southampton only Lovren betters his figure of 2.1 interceptions. As previously mentions, he adds to this defensive hyperactivity by being the Saints’ most prolific passer, typically sending possession out wide from where attacks can be built.
Schneiderlin has been partnered by the underrated Jack Cork while Victor Wanyama has been injured, but with Cork now sidelined as well Pochettino has a dilemma. He will presumably choose to call James Ward-Prowse back to the starting eleven, but whether he will use him in central midfield or wide on the right is difficult to say. Ward-Prowse is adept in either position, but at White Hart Lane the Argentine manager could prefer the industry of the more experienced Steven Davis.
Assuming it is Schneiderlin and Davis in the middle with Ward-Prowse on the right, Adam Lallana will play behind the striker, drifting to either side of the pitch to find space and create overloads on Spurs’ full-backs, as is his wont. Lallana has had another excellent season and although he is only one year into a five-year deal, it would not be a great surprise if his excellent all-round performances were not rewarded with a move to a bigger club and better things in the summer.
Fellow England international Jay Rodriguez will play as an inside-forward, starting on the left but sprinting in behind the Spurs’ defence, looking to get on the end of one of many of his teammates’ through-balls played into that area. Eyebrows were raised when the Saints splurged £7m on the then-Burnley forward, but his twelve league goals and all-action performances this season have seen most doubters eating humble pie, while a place in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad beckons.
Looking to join Rodriguez in Rio will be Rickie Lambert. The target-man seemed set to be consigned to the Saints’ history books when Pablo Osvaldo arrived at the start of the season but the Argentine-Italian’s training ground meltdown and subsequently disgraced departure in January has seen the centre-forward spot become Lambert’s to hold again.
He has nine goals and eight assists this season, taking 2.6 shots per game and creating 1.4 chances for his teammates. He is perfectly suited to Southampton’s aggressive, high-tempo attacking style, and while he does not contribute defensively as ceaselessly as his teammates, he is always in the right place to receive and play the ball when it is turned over and they spring forward.
A formidable challenge for Tottenham Hotspur and Tim Sherwood, then, but one they should not fear. Having taken three points from St Mary’s in Sherwood’s first game in charge, Spurs have shown that they have the ability to play through Southampton’s press and make real chances time and again. While the wind has gone from their sails somewhat since then, they undoubtedly have the individual ability to repeat the feat. If nothing else, expect goals.