Since the sacking of Nathan Jones, Southampton have won seven points from a possible 12 in the league and have kept three clean sheets in four games. So, is new manager Ruben Sellés building something?
Prior to the appointment of Sellés – initially temporarily and now permanently – Southampton had kept just one clean sheet in the league all season. Now, with three in their last four league games, they are giving themselves a real platform in the fight for survival; particularly as goals have been hard to come by all season.
It is incredibly telling that, despite being bottom of the Premier League table, the Saints will be disappointed to have come away from Old Trafford without all three points. The early red card for Casemiro was of course a factor, but Sellés’ side were playing well and causing problems even prior to the sending off.
Although it should be caveated heavily by the fact that Sellés has only been in charge for four league games, and no one associated with the club is getting carried away, Southampton are sixth in the form guide if you account for the period that Sellés has been in charge.
In his first stint as a head coach in senior professional football, Sellés is beginning to imprint his principles and philosophy on the Southampton team that he coached under both Ralph Hasenhüttl and Nathan Jones. How has he done this in a way that has seen results improve and generated hope for players and fans alike?
Firstly, and perhaps crucially, he did not seek to make huge changes all at once. In the first game of his tenure, the 1-0 victory away at Chelsea, Sellés did not shy away from the fact that he had used many of the principles associated with Hasenhüttl. It was a return to familiarity and the players responded to this by executing the gameplan perfectly. Against Leeds United, Sellés saw what Hasenhüttl had seen so regularly in his time in charge: a great performance against top opposition followed by a lacklustre performance against a side where Southampton are expected to take the game to their opponents.
The 1-0 defeat to relegation rivals Leeds at Elland Road had given Sellés some food for thought and he responded by changing the shape and personnel for the home game that followed against Leicester City. This was the first line-up that you could look at and see Sellés’ own choices in terms of shape and approach rather than simply reverting to the familiar 4222 shape that had given the club some joy previously.
Sellés is known in the coaching world for his experience and expertise in coaching both the 433 and 4231 formation primarily. Against Leicester, the Spaniard opted for the latter. The shape was not the only indication of a change in approach, though. Sellés has tried to use the relationship he had built with the players in his time as coach to his advantage and has leant on the senior squad members to help him in his role as manager. The noise from the club, and from Sellés himself, is that the 39-year-old has entrusted the senior players to effectively self-govern to an extent, managing the dressing room and ensuring standards are met and maintained. Something that had reportedly slipped over the past year.
This ‘player management group’ is said to comprise of the likes of James Ward-Prowse, Theo Walcott, Kyle Walker-Peters, Che Adams and Willy Caballero – who, at 41, sees his role off the pitch far exceed his role on it. This has seemingly had the desired effect and the work Sellés has done to get fans on-side has been important too. In creating a siege mentality and by being infectiously positive as well as meticulously professional, Sellés has given fans a likeable character who they want to see succeed. That goes a long way in football.
Southampton beat Leicester 1-0 at St Mary’s, but to say they rode their luck is a huge understatement. Kelechi Iheanacho missed a string of glorious chances, Harry Souttar hit the bar with a header in the last attack of the game, and James Maddison was afforded far too much time to run the game. There was a very positive takeaway from the game though – other than the desperately needed three points – and that was the character of a Southampton side who have all too often lacked just that. When Ward-Prowse missed his penalty in the 32nd minute it could have sucked the life out of a group of players bereft of confidence. Instead, it had the opposite effect. The miss seemingly galvanised the Saints, who were ahead three minutes later through a Carlos Alcaraz goal. After that they battled and dug in to win a game that they probably did not deserve to. Southampton fans have seen their side perform admirably on so many occasions only to inevitably collapse and lose the game. This time was different.
So, if the win over Leicester was lucky, the draw away at Old Trafford was anything but.
In the immediate aftermath of the Leicester victory, Sellés said that the attention now shifts to working out a plan to get three points at Old Trafford. This might sound like typical manager media talk, but Sellés seemed to really believe the words that were coming out of his mouth.
Against United, we saw the performance that was most in the image of Sellés so far. This is unsurprising, given that it is the game the furthest into his short reign so far, but the style of play and principles were the most easily recognisable that they have been in that time.
Southampton set up in a 4231 shape again, with the only change from the side that beat Leicester being Romain Perruad coming in at left-back, allowing Walker-Peters to shift to right-back. This meant that Ainsley Maitland-Niles dropped out despite a good performance in the previous game, but this was surely to allow Walker-Peters to be the player to combat the in-form Marcus Rashford. Roméo Lavia and Ward-Prowse again anchored the midfield, although Lavia often became a single pivot in possession. Alcaraz again played in the advanced midfield role, with Kamaldeen Sulemana and Walcott wide. Adams led the line for the second game in a row following a spell out injured.
Whilst this was very much Sellés’ 4231 shape, there were still details taken from former mentor Hasenhüttl. One subtle tactic was the regularity at which Southampton’s shape changed from a 4231 to a 4222. Alcaraz broke from his number ten role to become a second striker, and was actually often the most advanced Southampton player in this first half. The dynamism that the Argentine possesses allows Southampton to alternate between the two shapes seamlessly, with his ability to find pockets of space to receive the ball on the half-turn and attack the opposition defence once of his main assets. Alternatively, he is comfortable occupying the central defender and stretching the game, often targeting his compatriot Lisandro Martinez in Sunday’s draw. Alcaraz’s use of his body shape and low centre of gravity caused Martinez and Casemiro a host of problems early on, with Martinez booked after ten minutes for a cynical foul as Alcaraz had beaten him and had space to run into, before Casemiro challenged recklessly on Alcaraz on 32 minutes to receive a red card via a VAR review. In Alcaraz, Southampton have something they have lacked for a number of years: a player that can create something out of nothing. He is a player that produces moments that cause excitement and put defences on the back-foot and his use of trickery as well as one-twos to bypass pressing midfielders make him very difficult to stop. His impact wained as the game went on and he was substituted on 55 minutes for Stuart Armstrong, but his first-half performance was very impressive.
Another tactic borrowed from Hasenhüttl was the pressing. Hasenhüttl’s counter-pressing principles are very much focused on staying narrow out of possession to force the opposition to play the ball wide and then press intensely and in numbers to outnumber the opposition and force a turnover. This was an obvious ploy at Old Trafford. United started in a 4141 formation, with Casemiro playing as the lone pivot and a very attack-minded duo of Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho ahead of him. This meant that if Southampton could stop Manchester United in their first build-up phase and prevent the ball getting into the more creative United players they could have some success. Right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka had clearly been identified as the weak-link in United’s first phase of build up. When United had the ball at the feet of either David De Gea in goal or either centre-back, Southampton maintained their shape and did not look to press aggressively, ensuring that no United midfielder was able to receive the ball in space that would be vacated as a result of a more intense press. This then forced the pass to be to one of the full-backs, Luke Shaw or Wan-Bissaka, with Southampton’s shape meaning that this was primarily Wan-Bissaka due largely to body shape and blocking alternative passing lanes. As soon as the pass to Wan-Bissaka left the foot of the passer, Sulemana, Alcaraz or Adams, and one of the central midfielders pressed with intensity. Left-back Perraud squeezed up the pitch to be tight to Antony and the one out of Adams and Alcaraz that didn’t press the ball blocked the passing lane into the deepest midfield player. With 11 men on the pitch, United did manage to bypass this press on a few occasions. They often did this by switching the play, which left them a lot of room with the space vacated by the intense overloading of pressure on the player in possession previously. However, once Southampton had the player advantage this became far less regular and they could take more risks in their pressing.
On the face of it, one key difference between how Sellés set up his side against United and Leicester and Hasenhüttl is the desire to maintain width at all times. However, this is more similar to Hasenhüttl’s ‘wide tens’ than it may first appear. Hasenhüttl would ask his wide players to play as attacking midfielders and create overloads in the middle of the pitch when attacking and defending, with the width being provided by the full-backs. Sellés, as you would expect using a system with two wingers, prefers to create the attacking overloads in wide areas. However, this does not mean that the wingers are always touchline tight. In fact, against United there was a clear ploy for Walcott and Sulemana to make out-to-in runs in behind to look to receive a through ball to run onto or to drag the defending full-back inside to create space for either Perraud or Walker-Peters. This worked very well, particularly when they had the player advantage. This also meant that if their run was not found and the ball did go wide, they were inside the full-back and centre-back on their side and could offer an underlapping run for their full-back to slip them in behind in the second phase of the attack.
This heat map showing Southampton attacking right to left shows just how high and wide the Southampton full-backs were, with Perraud particularly prominent in the final third.
It is likely that the relationships in wide areas will be key moving forward and in Walker-Peters and Walcott on the right and Perruad and Sulemana on the left Southampton look to have a nice balance. The only disappointing thing from Sunday is the fact that they struggled to create a clear-cut chance for Adams or anyone else from crossing positions, although Sulemema – and particularly Walcott – had chances of their own.
Another difference from Hasenhüttl’s approach is that the current Southampton side’s first thought is not to look for a vertical pass to get up the pitch as quickly as possible. They are seemingly more comfortable with keeping the ball and waiting for opportunities to make a killer pass rather than getting to the opponent’s goal as quickly as possible. They have variety to their game which makes them more difficult to defend against, with a mixture of short passes into feet centrally, getting the ball wide quickly, but also looking to play a ball over the top for a runner if the opportunity arises. The only problem being converting these promising attacking patterns into goals.
It is still very early in Sellés managerial career and Brentford on Wednesday presents the next test for the youngest manager in the Premier League, but the signs are positive. He has a group of players that have bought into what he is trying to do and he is starting to have a side that have a recognisable playing style – something that has been absent for the entirety of this season.
Whether Southampton will stay up remains to be seen, but they now have a real chance. When Jones was sacked that was all that anyone at the club could have asked for.