Sellés Brings Southampton Back

Fraser Spinney –

As job interviews go, caretaker manager Rubén Sellés taking Southampton away to Stamford Bridge and bringing home three points and a clean sheet is probably about as good as it gets.

Following talks breaking down with Jesse Marsch in midweek, Sellés – who has been first team assistant coach under Ralph Hasenhüttl and Nathan Jones – has made no secret of his desire to make the step up to manager for the first time in his career. He has said that he has felt he is ready for the past four years and he has certainly done his time as the second in command.

He is very well-liked by the players and has been saying all the right things in terms of getting the fans on side. Something that cannot be said of the man he has replaced. Of course you cannot read too much into club media, but all the noises coming out of the club suggest a man that has the backing of the players. Following the full-time whistle, this was especially evident as the whole squad celebrated the win with the Spaniard, including unused substitutes who could have let not being selected alter their backing of both manager and team.

Tactically, it was about going back to what the group of players know best for Sellés. The former FC Copenhagen coach said that he had heard from Hasenhüttl who had wished him luck ahead of his Premier League managerial debut and the pair had spoken. This could have been more than simply well-wishes, as Sellés lined up his team in Hasenhüttl’s favoured 4222 system. This was very much a case of revert to type.

This is likely to have been the reason for Sellés opting for some of the personnel to start that he did. Stuart Armstrong and Moi Elyounoussi were the two players selected to perform the wide attacking midfield roles as they so often did under Hasenhüttl. James Ward-Prowse dropped back from his recent central attacking midfield role to play alongside Roméo Lavia in the ‘six’ position. In defence it was a back four, which is undoubtedly what the Southampton players prefer to play. With Mohammed Salisu having a knock – and the unknown issue surrounding Duje Caleta-Car clearly having more to it than just upsetting Jones meaning that he was also absent – it was Jan Bednarek and Armel Bella-Kotchap at centre-back. Kyle Walker-Peters has been out with a hamstring problem so Ainsley Maitland-Niles played at right-back and Romain Perraud lined up on the left of the defence. Up front it was the new duo of Paul Onuachu, whose hold up play was very good, and Kamaldeen Sulemana.

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Sellés commented post-match that: “I didn’t have enough time to invent a different system. It was about being a unit. The boys knew the principles already.”. This supports the belief that Sellés decided to go back to basics and what the players know and trust, despite his expertise in coaching both a 4231 and 433. With time – something that Sellés and Southampton don’t currently have – he may begin to imprint his own tactical blueprint onto the squad, but for now playing as a unit and all pulling in the same direction is arguably more important than any system or tactics.

The thing that will be most pleasing for Southampton fans – other than the three points – is that they witnessed a side who were brave both with and without the ball. They were aggressive, combative and were all fighting for the cause. Nothing exemplifies this more than both full-backs making goal-saving blocks at key moments. The Saints made 24 fouls, which is the most in any Premier League game this season, showing that they are willing to do the ugly side of the game to grind out results. They were on the front-foot and suffocated Chelsea at times with their press.

The bravery with the ball started with the goalkeeper. The Southampton players are undoubtedly low in confidence as they sit at the base of the Premier League table, but in his short time in charge Sellés has restored their faith in playing out from the back. A far-cry from Jones’ direct approach, Gavin Bazunu in goal was constantly encouraged from the touchline to play short from the back. Chelsea looked to discourage this by setting up with four players on the edge of the Southampton box for goal kicks at times, but Sellés continued to tell his young goalkeeper to stay calm and continue to do as he had been instructed.

The bravery without the ball came from the high-pressing return to transition-focused football that has served the club so well in periods over the past four-or-so-years. Southampton squeezed the pitch and looked to trap Chelsea high up the pitch. The return of Bella-Kotchap was key to this, as his pace and aggression allow Southampton to take risks with the knowledge that he has great recovery pace.

Bella-Kotchap is the deepest player for Southampton ten yards inside his own half, with no other Southampton player in their own half. The full-backs are high and wide as they are the players entrusted with providing the with in this system. Risks are taken when you play this way, especially given Chelsea’s Noni Madueke and João Felix – Chelsea’s highest attackers – are fast players who can look to get in behind, but it is high risk high reward.

The first ten minutes set the pattern for the entire match, and nothing exemplifies the approach with and without the ball better than this passage of play.

Bella-Kotchap receives the ball in his own penalty area under pressure from Felix and trusts himself to carry the ball past the Portugal attacker, winning a free-kick.
The free-kick is played back to Bazunu in goal. Despite Chelsea having four players in a box press surrounding Lavia, Bazunu trusts the midfield pivot and plays a firm ball into him. Using the weight of the pass and knowing that Mateo Kovacic is on his shoulder, Lavia shifts his bodyweight and makes a no-touch turn to evade the Croatian and bypass the press. 

This immediately puts Southampton on the front-foot but his pass to Armstrong is slightly behind the man playing as the right-side number ten which means that he is forced to play backwards, temporarily halting momentum. Chelsea regroup goal-side of the ball, but Southampton build again through the centre-backs and Lavia; before he again turns his man to get Southampton attacking.

Lavia pays the ball to Sulemana, who is in the left pocket of the ‘red zone’ to use a term used by Hasenhüttl (after all, these tactics are very much his influence). Sulemana is one-against-one with Cesar Azpilicueta and gets to the byline to get a cross into the box.
The cross is cut out and the ball breaks to Madueke who looks to counter. Southampton immediately hunt the ball in numbers. When Ward-Prowse intercepts Madueke’s ball infield, all four of the Saints midfielders are within a ten-yard square around the man with the ball. They have swarmed centrally and the principles of counter-pressing and overloading the centre of the pitch are just as apparent as they were when Hasenhüttl was in the dugout. 

This passage typifies what Southampton were about under Hasenhüttl and the approach that perhaps gives them the greatest chance of survival. With little time and the precarious position the club find themselves in, familiarity is important. 

Sellés may not wish to implement this style long-term, but if he is to be the man trusted with taking the manager role permanently it may be the best option until the summer. He has shown that he has absorbed information from the managers he has worked under and applied this to brilliant effect in his Premier League managerial debut.

Before his sacking and following the 3-0 defeat to Brentford, Jones spoke about going back to basics. For this group of players, high-pressing, transition-based, aggressive football is them going back to basics.

By Fraser Spinney

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