Ralph Hasenhuttl has been in experimental mood throughout the opening exchanges of the new season.
The manager has largely moved between two different systems while retaining the same principles of play. After beginning the campaign with a five-at-the-back shape, he has reverted to his preferred 4-2-2-2.
Despite the tactical shifts that have occurred, Southampton’s task has remained the same: on the ball, they aim to create chances with vertical passing, and off the ball, they press in numbers to retrieve possession as quickly as possible.
It came as a surprise to see Hasenhuttl field his team in a 4-2-2-2 shape against Manchester United break; the manager had previously leaned towards a packed defence consisting of five players against the Premier League’s big six.
However, just how effective the shape truly was against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side remains unclear, as Saints were forced to sit deep and soak up pressure following Kevin Danso’s 73rd-minute red card.
Until then, Southampton had played on the front foot in what had been an open, intriguing encounter between two sides who have struggled defensively and looked threatening down the flanks in the first few weeks of the season.
With Danso now suspended for Saints’ upcoming trip to Sheffield United, it’s likely that the natural, first-choice left-back Ryan Bertrand will return to the starting line-up.
This change will likely provoke a more orthodox-looking back-line, but with Chris Wilder’s complex tactical system in mind, Hasenhuttl might just be best served to deploy three central defenders and two wing-backs at Bramall Lane.
Before the international break, United enjoyed their best share of chances courtesy of creation from the wide areas. Daniel James’s goal was a product of Juan Mata’s run occupying Cedric Soares, with James Ward-Prowse unable to get across quickly enough to provide the Portugal international with sufficient defensive cover.
United sensed this chance to hurt Southampton down the flanks early and persisted. Cedric and Danso were left exposed throughout the first half until Hasenhuttl ensured that Saints pressed with greater intensity and won the ball back with more urgency, higher up the pitch. This prevented the visitors from creating numerical overloads – until the sending off, of course – on the wings, ergo stymieing the threat of James, in particular.
Simply pressing higher in the same, narrow 4-2-2-2 shape may not be quite as effective against Sheffield United, though, and there is a sole reason for this: the fascinating, widely-discussed concept of overlapping centre-backs.
One fundamental aspect of Wilder’s Blades system is the usage of combination play on the wings. Build-up is largely sourced through Ollie Norwood through the middle, but the outside runs of Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell beyond the midfield line provide the team with numerical superiority in the wide areas.
While Sheffield United’s wing-backs bomb on and creative midfield players drift across into halfspaces, their central defenders make well-timed runs around the outside, hoping to create three-versus-two scenarios that suffocate their opponents and pin them back in their own third.
Wilder has not shown the same willingness to deploy this innovative tactic since leading the Blades back up to the Premier League, primarily given the newly-challenging level of opposition, but at home against Southampton, he will likely demand that the hosts play on the front foot.
Therefore, it would make sense if Hasenhuttl opts against continuing with the 4-2-2-2 shape – particularly given the absence of Danso, who takes a more conservative approach to playing as a full-back – and reverts to a back five, with a compact midfield three to limit the influence of Sheffield United’s overload-centric system.
Deploying a standard back four, without a natural wide player to support the full-backs on either wing, could present the Blades with an ideal chance to carry out Wilder’s peculiar tactical instruction to a tee. Cedric could not cope with Mata drifting across to support James against United, and similar situations could arise if Hasenhuttl does not manage the wide threat of Sheffield United effectively, ensuring that Saints are not outnumbered.
Such is the nature of Wilder’s system; the forwards are able to exploit space left in behind defences as they attempt to push higher to cope with the quick build-up from the Blades. This is another reason why starting three central defenders – Maya Yoshida may come into the team with Bertrand returning as a left wing-back – could be beneficial, as Saints look to cope with what is likely to be a strike partnership of Oli McBurnie and Lys Mousset.
Hasenhuttl’s men have not come up against a team of Sheffield United’s kind yet this season, and an intriguing tactical battle will emerge. Southampton should see this game as one that is winnable, but caution must be taken as the Blades look to impress with their bold tactical approach.