Danny Ings had a mixed afternoon when he entered Southampton’s clash with Liverpool last week.
He was at the heartbeat of Saints’ attacking movements, as the 3-4-3 shape produced more significant threat in the final third than the 5-3-2 that Ralph Hasenhuttl deployed for the first hour of the match.
Ings came close with a speculative effort, his left-footed curler from distance whistling just beyond Adrian’s top right corner. He scored his first goal of the calendar year, as he deflected the Spaniard’s pass to Fabinho into an empty net; albeit in fortuitous circumstances, the 27-year-old got off the mark for the season as a consequence of his intelligent, carefully-positioned pressing.
He could have been the hero late on, too. Yan Valery played a low ball across the face of goal, and Ings simply couldn’t miss. However, his delicate, side-footed attempt drifted almost apologetically wide of the target, letting Liverpool off the hook as they returned to Merseyside with a narrow 2-1 win and three points.
VAR may well have ruled out the possible equaliser; Valery appeared to be marginally beyond the Reds’ defensive line, but we will never truly know what the officials would have concluded. Either way, there was no escaping the reality of the glaring opportunity that Ings spurned, as fans emptied out of St Mary’s in utter disbelief that their £18 million signing had squandered such a chance.
Southampton hadn’t been given a hope by the vast majority of fans before the match. Statistically, though, they were better placed to overcome the European champions, with Wyscout‘s data indicating that their xG had totalled at 0.98 in comparison to the paltry sum of 0.89 from their visitors, whose triumph owed to the individual brilliance of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. The relentless lapses in concentration from Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side also played their part, too, of course.
Ultimately, Saints were left to rue their missed chances at decisive periods during the Liverpool match. Ings was not the only one guilty of fluffing his lines – Maya Yoshida and Che Adams should have put them two goals up in the first half – but his miss in the 86th minute is one that saw the team come away empty-handed.
Hasenhuttl now has a dilemma: stick or twist. Southampton looked sharp on the front foot against Liverpool and simply lacked cutting edge in the final third. However, the line-up was deployed in a conservative fashion; five defenders and three central midfielders were chosen. As a trip to Brighton and Hove Albion beckons, the boss may be tempted to sharpen his attacking tools and go for the throat at the Amex Stadium as Saints push for their first points of the season.
Ings and Adams was the striking combination of choice in the opening game at Burnley, with Nathan Redmond operating alongside them. But for an early chance for Adams and a self-manufactured effort from Redmond in the first half, there was no sign of Southampton breaching the resolute Clarets defence.
Hasenhuttl is spoilt for a choice, and it’s a welcome selection headache that has scarcely been placed upon previous managers at St Mary’s. A dearth of attacking options is no more, and the Austrian is blessed with numerous weapons within his arsenal.
None have more experience of the top flight than Ings, who was of preference to the Saints boss when fully fit last term. Favoured for his link-up play and ability to stitch together moves in the final third, the striker has fit seamlessly into the approach that Hasenhuttl has implemented.
And yet, there remain concerns over whether or not Ings is the man to adeptly lead the line and produce for Southampton. Following the arrival of Adams and the form of Redmond in a central position, it seems the fight is now well and truly on for places at the very top of the team.
Brighton are likely to line up with three central defenders, two wing-backs, and two orthodox players in the middle. Graham Potter has switched between a 5-4-1 and a 3-4-2-1 in the first two matches, but the spine of his Seagulls side has remained consistent.
Therefore, Hasenhuttl would be best served to occupy the Brighton back-line and ensure that Saints are not numerically outdone in the final third. Despite playing away from home, there is little room for exaggerated pragmatism and bottom-heavy tactics, with the club languishing in 19th place at this early stage.
Since midway through pre-season, there has been no clear sign of Hasenhuttl leaning towards the 4-2-2-2 shape that bore fruit during his time at RB Leipzig, indicating that he may opt to continue playing with five defenders. What may change in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch, though, remains to be seen.
Ings is a unique forward, and his skillset often makes for frustrating performances. It is essential that he is found with the ball to feet – especially with time and space to utilise his underrated vision – or with accurate crosses into the box.
His ability to release the ball efficiently and bring others into play must not be overlooked; hold-up play is connoted with physically-imperious strikers, but it is a trait that depends mostly on how the ball is shielded and the angles at which it is distributed.
Saints should get chances at Brighton. The Seagulls have defended well so far this season, but Potter’s possession-centric style and keenness to circulate the ball from deeper areas mean that they are vulnerable to intense, collective pressing, and this is where Hasenhuttl teams tend to smell blood.
Ings displayed against Liverpool that, although his finishing can often go awry, his intelligence is an extremely useful tool. With the dynamism and directness of Redmond and Adams, he could be the perfect foil in what must be a clinical attacking display at the Amex.