Southampton slumped to a 4-3 defeat away at Nottingham Forest on Monday to all but confirm their relegation from the Premier League, eight points from safety with nine points to play for. It was a game that the Saints started well in but fell victim to a goal on the break from a quickly taken free-kick in the 18th minute against the run of play. Three minutes later and Taiwo Awoniyi had bagged Forest’s second and it was an uphill task form then on. To score three goals away from home in a massive game against direct relegation rivals and come away with nothing is a real sickener, but it is difficult to argue that Southampton deserved a share of the spoils.
Whilst it is somewhat by-the-by now, there was a very intriguing tactical element of Southampton’s performance worthy of note. Rubén Sellés identified Forest’s strength in quick transition and counter-attacking prior to the game and constructed a tactic that was intended to prevent this being so effective. This would in theory stifle Morgan Gibbs-White and Brennan Johnson. With Romain Perraud ruled out for the remainder of the season through injury, it was widely expected that Kyle Walker-Peters would switch to left-back as he has done so often in the past and Ainsley Maitland-Niles would line-up on the right of the four-man defence. Curiously, it was the reverse of this, with Maitland-Niles starting the game in the left-back position and Walker-Peters in his more natural right-back role. The thinking behind this soon became clear, with Maitland-Niles instructed to step into a central midfield role on a regular basis.
Inverted full-backs are very much flavour of the month in the Premier League, with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side the pioneers. This season, John Stones has been demonstrating on a regular basis just how proficient he is at performing this role. More recently, Jürgen Klopp has used Trent Alexander-Arnold in a similar way; the shift into midfield in possession allowing Alexander-Arnold to display his best attributes whilst masking his defensive fragility. On Monday, it was Maitland-Niles’ turn to perform this role. The aforementioned pair have provided the blueprint for how to play this role – unfortunately Maitland-Niles showed exactly how not to.
It is fair to say that the Arsenal loanee is not in the same bracket as the likes of Stones and Alexander-Arnold in terms of ability but, when you consider Forest’s strengths, it is understandable that Sellés utilised him to try and provide Southampton with a foothold in the game. It makes sense to look at how this influenced Southampton tactically in an attacking sense prior to assessing the reasons for this approach defensively.
Firstly, with Maitland-Niles being right-footed it suits him more to move in-field rather than overlap wide on the left. He is not particularly strong on his left side (see his first-time left-footed cross that ended up in the stands when Southampton were building momentum in the second half), nor is he good at beating a defender one-on-one, so taking up the space of Stuart Armstrong who played as the wide left midfielder would likely have been more of a hinderance than a help. By stepping inside and taking up a position alongside Roméo Lavia, it allowed Armstrong space to drive on the left and demonstrate his progressive dribbling strength as well as to drop into a left-back position to receive the ball deep.
When Maitland-Niles stepped into central midfield it also freed up James Ward-Prowse to take up positions higher up the pitch where he can effect the game more. In the first half he regularly found pockets in the right half-space to receive the ball and either cross or play wide to Walker-Peters or Walcott and create an overload on Forest’s left. This, then, meant that Southampton were playing more of a 4-3-3 than the 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 that Forest were likely expecting, with Maitland-Niles’ hybrid pseudo-positioning meaning that both Ward-Prowse and Carlos Alcaraz played as number eights in large spells in and out of possession; although there were times when Maitland-Niles dropped back into a more conventional left-back role, Ward-Prowse slotted in alongside Lavia, and Alcaraz was in an attacking midfield role to create a 4-2-3-1 defensive shape.
The below average positions map highlights how Southampton utilised Maitland-Niles (3), with his average position almost halfway between the left-back position and the centre of the pitch. Lavia (45) maintained his position at the base of the midfield, whilst Ward-Prowse (8) and Alcaraz (26) pushed high to help stretch Forest and try and drag the Forest number eights in Danilo and Ryan Yates back towards their own goal. Interestingly, the tactic of Maitland-Niles stepping into midfield did not compromise the instruction of Walker-Peters (2) to get forward as often as possible. This is unlike Manchester City, who maintain a back three when Stones lines up in midfield and build in a 3-2 structure. Southampton effectively had a back two in possession which did leave them vulnerable to counter-attacks.
The touch map for Maitland-Niles (above) also demonstrates that he was receiving the ball equally in central areas and on the left.
So, in attack this tactic allowed Southampton to create overloads in attacking areas, gave freedom to Ward-Prowse in the right half-space and dominate the centre of the pitch, but what was the thinking behind this approach defensively?
As alluded to, Forest’s biggest strength is their ability to break quickly and in numbers, with Johnson and Gibbs-White the two main threats in the team. Forest lined up in a 4-3-3, with this pair either side of Awoniyi who occupied the central striker position. Gibbs-White was playing wide on the left, whilst Johnson was playing wide right; however both do their best work when they drift centrally and this was likely a key reason for the tactical tweak. By clogging the centre of the pitch in which Gibbs-White and Johnson love to operate, Southampton intended to make themselves less susceptible to fast counter-attacks when possession was lost.
The decision to play Armstrong on the left of midfield was likely to help Maitland-Niles defensively, especially given that when Theo Walcott was replaced by Kamaldeen Sulemana in the second half he maintained this position despite the fact that Sulemana favours the left and Armstrong favours the right. Somewhat predictably though, three of Forest’s four goals came from the Southampton left. The first was a quick free-kick that led to Renan Lodi playing a long diagonal over the head of Maitland-Niles to Johnson who squared to Awoniyi to finish. Despite a strong opening 18 minutes, Southampton were behind to exactly the type of goal they had set up specifically to prevent. The third Forest goal was a combination of clumsiness and misfortune from Maitland-Niles, with Johnson coming from his blindside when clearing the ball, nipping ahead of the defender’s swinging leg to take the contact and subsequently win a penalty. The fourth was again from Maitland-Niles’ side, with Johnson squaring to Gibbs-White whose neat flick gifted Danilo a goal.
Inverted full-backs tend to be the most comfortable of the back four in possession and have the passing ability to be a useful asset when they step inside. They are versatile footballers who can excel in either role. The cold reality is that in Maitland-Niles, rather than having an expert in both positions, Southampton have a player not quite good enough to tie down either position and so, when asked to perform a combination of the two, the quality just wasn’t there. His ball retention was poor and, frankly, he offered very little as a midfield player other than merely an extra body in the build-up and in defensive transitions. Sellés deserves some credit for formulating a plan to address Forest’s strengths and to try and make Southampton more secure both in attack and defence, but unfortunately the execution was not there and the influence this tactical variation had dwindled as the game went on.
It was Maitland-Niles’ defensive work that let Southampton down, although the blame does not lie all at his door by any means. You could perhaps forgive his unhurried, laidback demeanour if he was performing well, but the truth is the porous nature of his defending coupled with his lack of influence in attack mean that his overly-calm persona is difficult for fans to warm to.
With Arsenal having confirmed they are not going to trigger a contract extension, Maitland-Niles will be a free agent in the summer. He has indicated that he would be open to extending his stay on the south coast even if that is in the Championship. He provides depth in a range of positions and if wages are low then the Southampton hierarchy may see merit in offering the five-cap England international a deal. That being said, it is difficult to envisage any Southampton fan being too disappointed if he is not a Saints player next season, particularly on the back of his performance at the City Ground.