There is an accepted feeling on the south coast that Southampton’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal three months ago was a watershed moment in their season. Since then, they sit 5th in the form table and have rediscovered their identity through Ralph Hasenhuttl and his co-ordinated chaotic, all-action tactics. From relegation certainties, they are now contenders for a comfortable top 10 finish.

So, what’s changed? Here is a tactical analysis breakdown of Southampton’s sudden upturn in fortunes.

Saints’ shift in formation

It was the 23rd of November and Southampton travelled to North London to face Unai Emery’s Arsenal. Conceding 23 goals in their previous six games, the nine Leicester put past them the primary reason, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side had taken just one point out the 18 on offer. Creating and scoring at the other end was also a considerable concern too. To the 23 goals conceded, they had only netted six in return. No side had scored fewer first-half goals too (three).

Adopting a pragmatic 5-2-3 system for the beginning of his first full season in charge, Hasenhuttl had struggled to implement his renowned high-pressing vision onto his players. Despite staring down the barrel of relegation, a trip to the Emirates did, however, provide fresh opportunity to wipe the slate clean. The international break prior to the game offered the Austrian and his coaching staff time to evaluate and rescue the philosophy that first enthused supporters when he took over.

For the first time in the season, Hasenhuttl opted for his favoured 4-2-2-2 system from his time at RB Leipzig. Shortly after arriving in December 2018, Hasenhuttl made it no secret as to his desire to play 4-2-2-2. However, later that month, the Austrian revealed his early analysis shifted and instead, adopted a five at the back system, due to the past inability of Saints’ backline to defend 1v1. The 52-year-old felt compelled to add an extra defender to seek defensive reassurance. But routinely, the central midfield area lacked bodies and was left exposed and overran – not conducive to a front-foot style out of possession.

Southampton’s most used personal within the 4-2-2-2 system since Arsenal match 

As you can see in the system below, the narrow midfield four, referred to as a box midfield, often provides an overload in central areas of the pitch, encouraging direct play through the passing lines. Width is provided by full-backs. The close proximity of the midfield enables pressing in packs.

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Southampton’s commonly used starting eleven.

Redmond and Armstrong operate in what Ralph Hasenhuttl refers to as the ‘red zone’ – the area between the opposition’s defence and midfield. Redmond cuts in from the left and Armstrong from the left to become two ‘number 10’s’ in the final third. This allows the full-backs into the space vacated by the inverted wingers to overlap.

Modified defensive mindset

Since the Arsenal match, there has been a clear shift in not only shape but mentality. The now settled defensive pairing of Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek are visibly more aggressive in their 1v1 duels. The increased physicality enables tighter and quicker pressure, resulting in the pair often dominating jousts with an attacker. Their bravery in stepping out from the back produces quicker turnovers of play, where they can turn defence in attack in a matter of seconds, something which is essential to Hasenhuttl’s attacking principles (more on that later).

Example in their 2-1 win against Leicester below

Jack Stephens opts to leave Jamie Vardy and get touch-tight on Dennis Praet, preventing the Leicester midfielder from having time and space to exploit a dangerous area. This results in Stephens stealing in and feeding Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg, who then generates a counter-attack.

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An image showing Southampton’s defensive bravery out of possession.

Stephens and Bednarek partnership

Both Stephens and Bednarek have been vital in the side’s upturn in fortunes, not just through their revitalised bravery. The latter was labelled a “firefighter” by Hasenhuttl for his ability to snuff out danger.

Hasenhuttl’s description is more than plausible, as the Pole did top the Premier League’s clearance charts before the match he missed against Burnley a fortnight ago. His 136 clearances were six more than second-place James Tarkowski and resoundingly ahead of any teammate, dwarfing centre-back partner Jack Stephens (74), who was next best. The front-foot aggression of Bednarek is also noticeable in interceptions, where his current 57 recovered ball turnovers are 18 more than second-placed Hojbjerg.

Typically, added aggression for defenders can often work against their case to have it in the first place. Instead, there is a tendency to associate those types of defenders for ‘diving in’ or making unnecessary fouls in dangerous areas of the pitch. The erratic, sometimes self-destruction mode of defending is prominent in the modern game, due to the insistence of managers to regain possession as quickly as possible and thereby, dominating. But for Southampton’s defenders, this is a misconception. Despite their want to command all situations, evidence suggests there is a composure to their perceived chaos.

In the first 25 Premier League matches this season, Southampton were tied with Manchester United for conceding the smallest percentage of fouls in the final third of the pitch. 

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A table showing the amount of fouls conceded in dangerous areas of the pitch [Photo: The Athletic]

Cynical ingenuity

Another tool Hasenhuttl has added is an edgy, cynical streak. Notoriously, ‘gegenpressing’ can be viewed as precarious if each player is not in the correct position to apply pressure; it requires a particular automatism that avoids leaving vast amounts of space in behind the defence and in-between the lines. But under Hasenhuttl, when his side lose possession, his tactical-foul approach negates the vulnerability of becoming exposed to a counter-attack.

And the statistics show it. This season in the first 25 matches, Southampton have conceded the third-most fouls in the Premier League, yet are somehow tied 17th for yellow cards received.

A fundamental reason why they aren’t getting punished with yellows is there isn’t one repeated offender. Rather than one obvious culprit, they instead ‘share’ a yellow card around the team, where not one individual can be pinpointed to the crime. A perfect case came in their 2-0 away win against Crystal Palace in January. Palace’s talisman Wilfred Zaha was repeatedly fouled by four players. Stuart Armstrong, Oriol Romeu and Jack Stephens had their say and got away with it, while James Ward-Prowse was the only one cautioned.

Where the foul is situated can also be a common factor. With their constant demand to regain possession as high up as possible, Southampton’s engagements are likely to take place in the oppositions defensive third, which is considered as an innocuous area to concede a foul. This also results in fan pressure being at a minimum, as the resulting free-kick isn’t usually quite as impactful.

The table shows Southampton have continually proven to grasp the small window of opportunity when it comes to committing fouls that they can essentially get away with. In the first 25 league games, they needed an average of 8.13 fouls before being booked.

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A table showing number of fouls compared to number of yellow cards received.

Their improvement in their subtlety in fouls has contributed to the side being awarded fewer yellow cards than last season (1.51 to 1.87) – despite making more tackles per game. In the initial 25 league games played, the team successfully completed an average of 19.6 tackles per 90 minutes, compared to the 18.3 last season.

Increased mobility/energy in midfield

Ralph Hasenhuttl’s engine room is key to all of this. Labelled as the ‘number six’ position, his central midfield two are at the forefront of ball engagements. James Ward-Prowse (70) and Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg (64) have made the most tackles in the team. Their partnership has triggered a new aspect into Southampton’s game. Automatism is a term Hasenhuttl often uses to describe how he wants Southampton’s players to react to pressing-game triggers.

Hasenhuttl wants his team to be able to respond to a number of situations with such ease and normality, they resemble some sort of machine. The added mobility of Hojbjerg and Prowse – compared to Romeu who was employed in a similar role earlier this season – allows early pressure on the ball, often triggering a press or supporting the press from behind in a covering role.

Once seen as soft-touches and defensively naïve, Ralph Hasenhuttl has transformed Saints’ into a defensively resolute side, who grind away at counterparts in a nagging-thorn type of manner.

Below is an example of the Hojbjerg/Prowse partnership, where the former ends up winning a free-kick, which Prowse then scores.

Ward-Prowse engages quickly and forces Capoue to pass square. Hojbjerg anticipates pass and is on front foot to intercept.

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Southampton’s central midfield duo applying pressure on the ball.

Ward-Prowse’s body shape shows which direction he wants the ball to go in. As soon as Capoue’s pass is played, because of Hojbjerg’s high positioning, he’s able to cut out the pass. Bertrand’s recovery run attempts to swarm the Watford full-back, ensuring if he receives the ball, he will be under immediate pressure. The midfield press leaves the two centre-backs, two vs two at the back.

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Southampton applying pressure to counter a counter attack.

Hojbjerg steals in to counter a counter-attack from Watford. Notice that the two wider, advanced midfielders within the 4-2-2-2 set-up, who play just behind the strikers (Redmond and Djenepo) are not in the picture. This highlights how high they have pushed up in the previous phase.

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Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg steals possession.

Addition of Shane Long

Of course, you cannot mention Southampton without uttering two words: Danny Ings. However, the inclusion of Shane Long has played a pivotal role in Southampton’s success.

Reducing the defensive back-line from a five to a four has provided additional bodies further forward. Danny Ings now has a dependable aide in Shane Long, where the former Liverpool man is no longer being isolated at the top end of the pitch. Long also plays a vital part in helping to engage opposition contact higher up.

The natural goal scorer of the two, Ings seems to thrive with a striking partner and someone who can share the burden of Hasenhuttl’s intense pressing responsibilities. With Long synonymous for his tireless running, Ings – who has a wretched record with injury in the past – has support to hunt in packs, thereby remaining sharp in the counter-transition. Despite initial success earlier on in the season, tackling Adrian and then Hugo Lloris to then score, Ings was often the only one pressing, which increased the danger of picking up another injury due to the increased physical demands placed onto his body.

Seven days after the Arsenal game, Long and Ings first played upfront within the 4-2-2-2 system against Watford, where Long came on as a 57th-minute substitute.

And since, Long and Ings have accrued 12 goals. The pair have only started ten games together and it would have been more had it not been for a knee injury to Long, who missed three games over the festive period. Meanwhile, Ings minutes have been managed, rotated twice.

But together, the stats show Long has been a perfect foil to Ings, who scored nine of those goals.

In-game away to Leicester, the image below shows the Ings/Long dynamic.

The former is fed the ball from a quick turnover and immediately has Shane Long as a passing option. Long’s pace stretches Leicester and allows Ings to play in-behind. Redmond, who has reacted quickly to the transition is deployed as the left winger in the 4-2-2-2 system, but has made a run inside to provide an alternative passing option.

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Southampton’s counter-attacking prowess and their ability to stretch the opposition.

Southampton’s mixed passing range

The importance of Long, not only to Ings but the team, cannot be under-valued. Winning 90 aerial duels, more than any other, Long provides a route one option. More significantly, the striker leads the Premier League for aerial duels won per 90 minutes.

Prior to his inclusion, Southampton found it difficult to play their way into the final third, without the lack of physical presence upfront. Now, direct passes can negate an opposition press, and favour Hasenhuttl’s values where quick build-up play is vital to his offensive patterns of play.

Below is an example of Shane Long winning a header from a 60-yard diagonal free-kick. Despite only standing at 5,11’, the striker’s athletic jump means he comfortably rises above Frederic Guilbert and flicks on to Redmond, whose found space in a dangerous area. His striking partner Ings is supporting the play from the other side. The natural tactics of the 4-2-2-2 system encourages players around Long, where Southampton are increasingly likely to pick up the first, second and possibly third phases of a set-piece.

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Shane Long’s aerial ability allows Southampton to play long and exploit dangerous areas.

The creation of co-ordinated chaos

The move to the 4-2-2-2 has also brought a renewed sense of vigour to the team and a Kamikaze-like style. It’s a description that is by no means offensive to the players or Ralph Hasenhuttl, who has previously admitted most of their matches draw similarities to a ‘ping pong’ match, indebted to the toing and froing nature that’s ingrained in their philosophy. They thrive within a disruptive rhythm to a match – and when most teams are uncomfortable with the ‘ping pong’ style – Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side embraces it.

In the Premier League this season, there have been six Premier League matches that have ended up with an overall pass completion rate of below 70%, and all of them involve Southampton.

Themselves only average a fraction above that this campaign, with a pass completion rate of 72%. Despite what could be perceived as a lack of quality in the squad contributing to the low accuracy rate, there are mitigating circumstances. Instead, it’s rightly regarded that Hasenhuttl expects players to take risks on the ball, passing incisively forward through the narrow defensive lines of the opposition. Therefore, the risk-taking nature can often contribute to a match full of turnovers.

In the image below, we see six Southampton players react to a turnover in possession, swarming the Norwich midfield. Ward-Prowse, located in the central area of the box, acts as the midfielder enforcer, applying instant aggressive pressure. This halts the counter-attack through winning the ball or accepting a foul. At the top right of the box, central midfield partner Hojbjerg supports the press and intercepts the pass.

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Southampton’s chaotic pressing suffocates Norwich midfield.

Conclusion

Southampton ultimately find comfort within chaos, where their all-action, kamikaze approach unnerves opposition teams, whilst simultaneously composing themselves. This often results in opponents failing to find any sort of momentum or sustained pressure.

Southampton are unique in their methods, where Ralph Hasenhuttl has implemented a series of adaptions to his high-octane vision that are now bearing fruit. Playing a thoroughly entertaining brand of football, the 4-2-2-2 system looks here to stay.