The Story So Far
The season started slowly for a Saints side adapting to new manager Claude Puel, with the Frenchman earning just two points from his first four games. Since then, three wins, including a 3-0 success at the London Stadium, and two draws, including Sunday’s visit to Manchester City, have seen Southampton climb to 8th place in the Premier League. With 11 points from their last five league outings, the Saints currently top the form table.
Puel has also found success in cup competitions. A 2-0 win over Crystal Palace in the EFL Cup 3rd round was sandwiched between four Europa League points - a home win over Sparta Prague and an away draw at Hapoel Be'er Sheva.
The Manager - Claude Puel
The appointment of Puel as Southampton manager marked the first time that the Frenchman had worked outside of his homeland. After a 17-year playing career with Monaco, Puel took the first team reins at the Stade Louis II, winning the 1999-2000 Ligue 1 championship. Spells with Lille, Lyon and Nice followed before the move to the South Coast.
Puel is known as a tactically flexible manager who excels in youth development. He handed professional debuts to the likes of Kevin Mirallas, Eden Hazard, Yohan Cayabe and Mathieu Debuchy at Lille, and also promoted 16 youth players to the first team at Nice while leading the team to two 4th place finishes, along with overseeing the resurgence of Hatem Ben Arfa.
Key Player - Dusan Tadic
The Serb has been Southampton’s most consistent and creative threat since his 2014 move from FC Twente, and is the only player to feature in all 13 games this season. The attacking midfielder has registered an impressive 12 goals and 19 assists during that period, and while he has found them harder to come by so far this campaign, Tadic is actually shooting (with greater accuracy) and dribbling more, while making more key passes. Claude Puel’s switch to a 4-4-2 diamond has seen Tadic move inside to a number 10 position, freeing up the space for him to dictate possession on a more regular basis; his 6th highest 3.1 key passes per game, 2nd highest total of 28 (only behind Dimitri Payet) and 4th highest 0.4 through balls suggests that it is working, with the likes of Charlie Austin and Nathan Redmond reaping the benefits up front.
Puel’s implementation of the 4-4-2 diamond has made Saints an all-round solid unit. Southampton typically dominate the ball (53.3% average possession) through clever movement and accurate passing (7th most passes and 6th most accurate short passes, with only 9.3 unsuccessful touches per game), preferring to pass rather than dribble. In fact, Southampton’s 10.3 attempted dribbles per game is the league’s 2nd lowest average.
In Charlie Austin, Southampton boast a striker in form. The former QPR man has scored seven goals in 11 games this season and is a threat for any defence.
The 27-year-old has undoubtedly benefited from Southampton’s ability to create chances, a particular strength for Puel’s side. They make a 5th highest 12.7 key passes per game and take almost 17 shots on goal per game, the league’s 4th highest total. They are also statistically the second most accurate shooting team in the Premier League.
Despite this, they have scored only 11 goals in the Premier League; less than the likes of Crystal Palace, Watford and Burnley, with striking pair Austin and Redmond accounting for seven of those. While Tom Heaton was in exceptional form against Saints with 10 saves, Southampton were guilty of some poor misses and Puel will feel that his side should have a greater scoring tally.
All eight of the goals conceded by Southampton in the Premier League have been from within the 18 yard box, suggesting that while they are defensively strong (their defensive record is the joint-second best), there may be space in and around their goal area to create chances.
Unlike Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman before him, who favoured a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 setup, Puel has his Saints side lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, which is both solid and fluid and allows Southampton to play with a patient build-up, as opposed to the counter-attacking styles of his predecessors. By packing the midfield centrally, Saints are able to dominate possession via their triangle play. Their average of 53.3% possession per game is the league’s 6th highest, while their 82.1% pass success is the top division’s 7th best. Oriol Romeu, Steven Davis and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg all average over 50 passes per game and 85% pass accuracy.
With Southampton’s front six playing centrally within the diamond, emphasis is placed on the full backs to provide some much needed width. They are instructed to push forward as far as possible. Deep-lying midfielder Romeu drops deep to dictate play and provide support to the central defenders, who are encouraged to start attacks from deep. The aim is to push the opposition as far back as possible.
Out of possession, the set-up requires complete understanding between the midfield to protect the defence and maintain shape. Romeu has been particularly effective in this area, winning three tackles and making 2.8 interceptions per game. The attacking midfield playmaker and one of the two strikers are also expected to drop deep to offer support to the midfield, making Southampton difficult to play through - as seen on Sunday.
With Puel favouring two strikers up top, Saints now find themselves with a more dynamic attacking threat. While Graziano Pelle was effective both aerially and on the ground, his lack of pace and mobility meant that Southampton were restricted offensively. Both Charlie Austin and Nathan Redmond can come short or run in behind, and do so interchangeably. Both are willing runners, and particularly in the case of Redmond, are able to exploit defenders with pace and mobility. The former Norwich man’s speed and the clever movement of Austin drags centre backs wide, allowing Tadic room to operate on the edge of the area.
Last Time Out
Sunderland looked to be leaving St Mary’s with all three points after Jermain Defoe converted an 80th minute penalty - awarded for the striker being fouled by Jose Fonte. But The Lads suffered late heartbreak for a second successive season when Jordan Pickford allowed Jay Rodriguez’s speculative effort to slide under his arms with just five minutes to go.