Southampton have been flying high as of late in the Premier League. Previous to their encounter with Crystal Palace, they accumulated 16 out of 19 possible points. Palace, on the other hand, have slowed, with only one win in their last ten outings. It seems Ralph Hasenhüttl has got his side playing his brand of football. This tactical analysis will examine how Southampton’s tactical set-up overpowered the Eagles.
Pre game analysis saw a Crystal Palace side that went into the match unchanged from their last round draw to Manchester City. Southampton, on the other hand, made two changes from their loss against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Surprisingly Michael Obafemi replaced Danny Ings up top. Whilst Ing’s was poor against Wolves, he has been in red hot form this year as their top goalscorer. It was a bold move from Hasenhüttl. At the back, Jannik Vestergaard replaced Jan Bednarek.
The game tactics from both sides were fairly evident early into the match. Southampton looked to pin Crystal palace in their own half. On the flip side, Crystal Palace were happy to sit in and look to exploit gaps in the Saints’ defensive line on the break.
As we can see below, Crystal Palace sat in a compact 4-5-1 formation. Both the wingers and central striker for Palace would aim to force the centre-back into central areas. In the image below, Cenk Tosun and Wilfried Zaha wait until the centre-back engages near halfway. Then both players press from the outside and force Jack Stephens into a trap where they look to win the ball.
This was an interesting tactical tweak from Hodgson when considering Southampton’s formational shape. Southampton and Hasenhüttl in general favour a variation of a 4-4-2 formation. This usually comes in a 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2 diamond. Both variations see a large number of players located in central areas creating overloads. Ideally, Southampton will look to play vertical passes into central areas in order to break the opposition down. However, if the opposition is narrow, they have the option of width through their full-backs.
In the image below, Southampton’s 4-2-2-2 shape is fairly obvious. Pierre Hojbjerg and James Ward-Prowse offer central positions and look to entice Cheikhou Kouyate, James McArthur or James McCarthy forward. Once any of these three jump, it can potentially create a passing lane to the two inside wingers in Nathan Redmond and Stuart Armstrong. In this instance, McCarthy steps whilst Kouyate and McArthur fail to shift across. This opens a direct passing lane from Stephens to Armstrong who is vacant. Armstrong’s space is created by the two strikers who pin the centre-backs. If the full-backs of Palace step inside, then the full-backs of Southampton have extra space to receive the ball.
This tactic worked extremely well for Hasenhüttl and is a signalling element of his style of play. Crystal Palace struggled to eliminate all the gaps centrally and therefore their defensive structure was regularly breached through vertical passes from Southampton’s centre-backs or midfielders. The next step of Southampton’s phase of play began to look equally as dangerous. Once the ball would go into either Redmond or Armstrong, the full-backs due to their high positioning were available for the next pass.
Because Palace had been breached, we would see a swift compacting movement from their back four horizontally. As we can see below, this created huge room for the full-backs of Southampton. It also allowed Southampton to create overloads in wide areas. As a result, the Saints grew in influence throughout the first half, creating many dangerous crossing situations.
Hasenhüttl subscribes to the RB style of vertical, fast and intense football. His sides look to play forward and win the ball back as early as possible. Both goals of the match perfectly exemplify what Hasenhüttl wants his teams to do. The first goal came courtesy of a predictable pattern. As mentioned previously, Southampton were looking to play long and flat balls vertically into the two inside wingers or strikers. As seen below, Obafemi came to meet the ball which sucked out a central defender. Redmond recognised the space excellently, making a penetrative run into the vacant space created from the centre-back stepping in. Stephens fed a lofted vertical pass into Redmond who did the rest. The winger turned his man and thumped it into the top corner.
The second goal summed up how Southampton wish to work without the ball. Once again, a vertical pass was played into one of the front men. Hasenhuttl likes his players to always be available for a bounce option after the vertical pass. This not only creates a passing option, but secures players in and around the ball in case of loss.
In this instance seen below, Southampton lost the ball. However due to their shape they can and did press the ball with immediate effect. Their transition to defending was lighting quick, another hallmark of a Hasenhüttl side. They regained the ball immediately. After doing so, Crystal Palace were disorganized, with Stuart Armstrong finding a space on the edge of the box. The Scotsman fired an excellent shot into the left-hand side of the net giving Southampton a two-goal advantage.
Palace struggled with the tactical set-up of Southampton. The five across midfield found it difficult to cut off central passing lanes and therefore were regularly bypassed. This coupled with the extreme transitional pressure of the Saints made it hard for Palace to keep the ball once they regained it.
Zaha and Ayew seemed to have real issues with their defensive tasks. Both have tremendous attacking quality yet were tasked with major roles defensively in Hodgson’s set up. As stated previously, they were meant to press from outside to in. However often the wingers didn’t quite get their timing and intensity right. They went at the wrong time or without enough speed in order to close down the necessary passing lanes.
In the example above, Ayew looks to press Oriel Romeu. As Romeu is too far inside and due to the intensity of Ayew’s press, he leaves a passing lane to Ryan Bertrand wide open. Bertrand receives the ball and the Saints end up winning a corner as a result. This was just one example of a few moments that were similar and occurred throughout the game. In an ideal instance, McCarthy steps forward onto Romeu with a curved run to block the ball to Bertrand. Mcarthur and Kouyate jump across and close the passing lanes, leaving Romeu bereft of options. Ayew can hold his position and potentially from this scenario Palace can create a trap to win the ball. Due to their issues in their defensive set up, Palace struggled to create these moments and therefore struggled to both win the ball back and stop Southampton creating chances.
It was a tough ask from Hodgson to instruct the Palace midfield to defend in such a manner. It takes precise movement and timing for the midfield to move in synchronicity. When one moves up, the others need to engage in compensatory movements in order to both block central passing lanes and wider passing lanes. Often the timing and movement were incorrect, meaning passing lanes were open for exploitation.
In addition to this, Southampton were excellent in finding space between the lines. The interactions and movements of the front four made it hard for Palace’s back four to step up and pressure these players once they received the ball. The full-back’s higher positioning also acted as a stop-gap, preventing the full-backs of Palace stepping in to press the wingers or strikers.
Southampton seem to have found a flow and automatism to their game. When the ball went in between the lines, the receiver had an immediate option for a drop pass, a wide option and a player running in behind. This had the effect of giving the Saints various options in the next phase in order to progress the ball or create dangerous passes.
Hodgson’s set-up didn’t manage to get the best out of his players. In particular, Ayew and Zaha spent the majority of the game defending. Hodgson will need to find a way to get these two back to doing what they do best. Hasenhüttl and Southampton came out comfortable winners in this tie. The Saints looked a real side and stylistically a lot closer to what we can come to expect from their manager. Their setup and intensity of the ball was too much for Palace to handle. If they can continue in a similar manner, there is no reason as to why they can’t keep this hot run of form going for a little while longer.