Southampton travel to Brighton and Hove Albion in their third Premier League fixture of the season this weekend, and it is already a match of significant importance.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men are sat in the relegation zone at this early stage. Two defeats against Burnley and Liverpool have left them in a spot of bother, while their counterparts on Saturday have enjoyed an eye-catching opening to the 2019/20 campaign.
Brighton beat Watford 3-0 with consummate ease away from home before falling victim to VAR in a 1-1 draw against West Ham at the Amex Stadium. Even then, patchy finishing and exceptional goalkeeping from Lukasz Fabianski prevented them from running riot.
The form table suggests that Graham Potter’s side are the favourites for this match, but they are by no means unbeatable. Albeit a different animal from the team that was swatted aside comfortably by Saints towards the end of last season under Chris Hughton, there is still room for improvement.
Southampton huffed and puffed but were unable to blow down the Liverpool resistance in the closing exchanges of Saturday afternoon, but had plenty of joy down the flanks, creating openings and working the ball in behind the Reds’ wide players.
Yan Valery had a greater share of the play down the right, but on the left, Saints’ most common partnership again operated, as it so often has.
Ryan Bertrand and Nathan Redmond exchanged the ball between themselves 11 times, with five of these coming in the form of forward passes. This pattern was also prevalent at Burnley in the preceding fixture, with another 11 passes shared between them – the second-highest combination for Saints at Turf Moor.
Neither player was particularly impressive against Liverpool, but there was an emphasis on combination play down the wing that has been common, irrespective of the tactical approaches which have been implemented by numerous managers during the pair’s time at St Mary’s.
Redmond is often seen bringing the ball into the left half-space, attempting to draw challenges before drifting into central areas. Bertrand marauds forward on his outside and endeavours to offer a passing option, with the left-back’s ability to fire accurate crosses into the box a tactic that has borne fruit at times in recent seasons.
The duo – both England internationals – have been prominent features in Hasenhuttl’s team selection despite the chopping and changing that has occurred as the Austrian has sought a winning formula at St Mary’s. While the tendency to frustrate and surrender possession prevails between them at times, Bertrand and Redmond’s linkup is Southampton’s most dangerous attacking weapon.
The latter’s influence in the opening fortnight of the season has been admittedly limited. Redmond has attempted only three shots, with his drive against Burnley nearly resulting in a goal, but has not quite been as impactful as he was last term, which resulted in him scooping individual awards.
Bertrand, meanwhile, has not put his well-established acumen to effective use. His lapse defending condemned Southampton to the third and final nail in the coffin at Burnley, while his second-half showing against Liverpool provided little cause for optimism. It was, in fact, the first time Hasenhuttl has ever substituted him in a competitive fixture, with Moussa Djenepo arriving on the scene to provide Saints with a more direct wide man.
Against Brighton, Southampton have to fancy their chances. They are underdogs for good reason following a dismal start to what had been an eagerly-anticipated season, but the Seagulls are by no means impenetrable. Their defensive shape has been impressive in the first two weeks of the season, but gaps do emerge, with Martin Montoya and Solly March leaving space between them and the position of the back three that Potter has hitherto favoured.
Overloading opponents, suffocating them and constraining their space are three fundamental facets of Hasenhuttl’s philosophy, and Southampton will press Brighton rather more intensely than Watford and West Ham did. What will be crucial, though, is that the combination of Bertrand and Redmond is supplied with enough ammunition down the wing to really put their counterparts on the back foot.
Dynamic, skilful, technically-gifted and wily, the pairing is among the more rounded on the flanks of the Premier League. It’s now time to see this partnership step up and produce in the final third for Southampton as they face a fixture of paramount importance at this early stage of the campaign.