What To Expect From Russell Martin

Fraser Spinney –

With relegation confirmed, Southampton fans can be forgiven for turning their back on the remainder of this season and hibernating until it draws to a sorry close at home to Liverpool on 28th May. It has been a turgid season in which countless factors have contributed to what is likely to be a 20th-place finish. 

This campaign has seen two managerial changes at St Mary’s and the table will tell you that both the appointment of Nathan Jones and Rubén Sellés have had disastrous consequences for the Saints. With life in the Championship confirmed, it is absolutely essential that Sport Republic get their next managerial appointment right. It appears that they are keen to act swiftly to secure their man, and it looks increasingly likely that Swansea City manager Russell Martin will be in the dugout next season.

Martin got his first taste of management when he replaced the outgoing Paul Tisdale at MK Dons in 2019, having signed as a player at the start of the year, and he hasn’t looked back since. 19 months later he was manager of his current side Swansea, having impressed in League One on a very limited budget. His budget has also been highly restrictive at Swansea, but he has enjoyed relative success and earned numerous plaudits for his playing style in that time, all whilst being very young in managerial terms having just turned 37.

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So, what is Martin’s playing style?

In essence, it is a very heavily possession-focused philosophy with the objective of dominating the ball and maintaining control. Martin himself cites his influences as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Barcelona sides, as well as Spain, so it is clear what he has based the foundations of his ideology on. The fact that, for the 2020-21 season, Martin’s MK Dons side pipped Manchester City to the highest average possession in English football with 63.97% is testament to the manner in which he has replicated his idols’ work. He is very forthright in his principles and prefers to try and improve and perfect his own system rather than adapt to opposition tactics or change style based off of results. In some ways this is admirable, but Ralph Hasenhüttl is a prime recent example of a manager at Southampton struggling with a lack of plan B.

A criticism of Martin from supporters of both Swansea and MK Dons is that, at times, it can feel like possession for possession’s sake, and there is no real intent to their passing. However, when you consider his MK Dons side set a British record for passes leading to a goal – with 56 – it shows there is merit in keeping the ball moving. There have also been times that both his sides have conceded very avoidable goals in their quest to play out from the back, but he does not let this sway him from his beliefs; after all, goals like this come with the territory when trying to play this way. His Swansea side finished 10th in the Championship this season, and yet they conceded the fifth highest amount of goals in the division. This is a pattern with his sides. In his only full season at MK Dons, his team finished 13th but only conceded eight less goals than Bristol Rovers who finished bottom. These defensive issues are concerning for a Southampton fanbase that have grown all too used to seeing their side concede regularly.

The flip-side of this is that his sides score a lot of goals too. This season, Martin’s side scored the joint-fourth most goals in the Championship with 64 in 46 matches. He is a manager who tends to play with one main striker and they are crucial to the way his side looks to attack. In the case of his Swansea side, this has been Dutch striker Joël Piroe, who scored 20 goals and registered two assists in all competitions this season and has scored 44 goals since joining Swansea in the same summer as Martin in 2021. With only a year left on his contract and at a good age at 23, perhaps Martin could convince the Southampton hierarchy to make a move for the striker who has benefitted so much under his management.

In terms of formation, Martin has generally preferred to play a 3-4-2-1 or a variation of a 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 in his career to date. However, regardless of which system is used, in possession it tends to be a back three and the emphasis is on the full-backs or wing-backs to push really high and wide. If it is the 3-4-2-1 then this happens naturally. Whereas, in the 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 shape, the defensive midfielder drops into the defence in-between the two centre-backs to provide a stable defensive structure and allow the full-backs to play high. This is why the defensive midfield player in Martin’s team is key and should be a player who is very comfortable on the ball and adept at stepping back into defence in possession and helping start attacks with lots of short passes while attempting to draw the opposition midfield out. They also need to be also comfortable stepping into the midfield out of possession and pressing the ball. It’s unfortunate that Roméo Lavia looks guaranteed to move on this summer as he would be the perfect player for this role.

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In the 3-4-2-1, the two players behind the main striker play narrow in similar areas to Eden Hazard and Pedro/Willian at Chelsea under Antonio Conte. This means that they are closer to the goal where they can be a direct threat while the full-backs are given space to stretch the game wide; it also allows Martin’s sides to create overloads in central areas with numerous passing options. Short passes are key to the build up in Martin’s sides and the build-up is slow and measured, with few high-risk passes made until the final third where either the ball is played wide for a cross into the box or more intricate passes around the box are attempted. 

The concept of ‘La Pausa’ that Roberto De Zerbi is becoming increasingly associated with at Brighton is also an element of Martin’s sides’ play, with defenders drawing the opposition to press by simply putting their fault on the ball and standing still. It does not always work, but often it can lead to frustration in the opposition forward players or midfielders and this results in them breaking from their defensive shape as they press. The idea is that by forcing this press, someone in the opposition has left a gap to be exploited. Martin touches on the use of this tactic in a 4-0 win over Swansea’s rivals Cardiff City in his ‘Masterclass’ video for The Coaches’ Voice

Out of possession there is a focus on pressing, but the in-possession themes of control are maintained. The idea is to force opponents wide and not allow them to play through the middle of the pitch. This is why the slightly conservative build-up play that concentrates on overloading the centre of the pitch benefits them when the ball is turned over. When there are transitions in the middle of the pitch this area is already dominated by your own players and it is a heavily congested area. The downside of this is that, if the quality is right, the opposite can get the ball wide quickly into the area vacated by the full-backs and there is a lot of space to exploit which can lead to chances.

The role of the forward players in the press – whichever shape they may be set up in – is to try and make sure the passes from the defenders and goalkeeper are low-quality due to the pressure they have been put under, or to force mistakes on the ball. With this in mind, the attacking players should be mobile and intelligent in how they press. This is something that has been a feature of Southampton’s ethos for a long time now and could translate well.

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One potential concern with appointing Martin is his emphasis on the process and the playing style over results. Southampton fans have grown weary from countless defeats and should things start badly in a division in which they will be hoping – and perhaps expecting – their fortunes to change, things could quickly turn sour. Martin has repeatedly reiterated in his short managerial career so far this his approach is to put the style first and it requires buy-in and patience from players and fans alike. 

When he took over at Swansea, Martin’s side won just one of their opening eight league games of the season. If Southampton were to endure a similar start to next season it would not be surprising to see fans lose patience very quickly.

By Fraser Spinney

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