In part 1, I discussed the manager and his players. Part 2 is an in-depth analysis on the tactics Mauricio Pochettino deploys.
Southampton usually line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation on paper and when defending, although when attacking the shape changes into a very attacking system with the two centre-backs centrally together, full-backs high up, a three man midfield behind three attackers.
The student and his master
The big thing Pochettino introduced when he was appointed last year was a high-pressing game. We’ve seen Spanish teams press high up the pitch before, Barcelona under Guardiola and Athletic Club under Marcelo Bielsa in particular, but this kind of pressing is something we haven’t seen in the Premier League before. Sure, the big teams always press the lesser sides higher in order to get the ball back but this level of pressing is previously unseen. Pochettino is extremely influenced by his former national team coach Bielsa, and there are a lot of similarities between the two men’s philosophies. The Argentine is not quite as extreme as his Chilean mentor, perhaps, but the idea is the same, stop the other team playing and do that by winning the ball high up the pitch, before they have any time to get into their rhythm.
This picture is from the game at Old Trafford in October when Southampton drew United 1-1. The left winger, Rodriguez, marks one centre-back and the striker, in this case Osvaldo, marks the other. This stops the centre-backs getting the ball and passing it out, and if a midfielder drops deep to get the ball from De Gea, then the number 10 for the Saints will pick him up. The keeper is forced to kick it, and you’d bet the defending team to win it given they have the two defensive midfielders and the centre-backs close together.
Here we have their defensive shape in the game against Liverpool at Anfield in September where they won 1-0. Until last week, Southampton were the only team to keep a clean sheet at Anfield this season. Now, of course Chelsea have too. We can see the striker up top with the three attacking midfielders behind him.
Here the ball has been played back to the goalkeeper and the pressing starts. The striker, Rickie Lambert on this occasion, press the goalkeeper and the attacking midfielders are still in their same positions as in the previous picture.
Here is when it starts to get interesting. The right winger, Adam Lallana, puts the left-centre back, Daniel Agger, under pressure. Lambert’s position makes sure that the option of playing it back to the goalkeeper is cut out.
In this picture Lallana is still pressing Agger and Lambert is with the keeper, but the attacking midfielder (Osvaldo) picks up the Liverpool midfielder, Lucas, who comes in to help Agger. Another passing option is closed.
Agger has managed to get away from Lallana and passed it to the left-back, Sakho. Now, the thing that epitomises Pochettino’s philosophy is visible. The right back, Clyne (circled), is the one pressing Sakho, all the way up in Liverpool’s defensive third. The courage to do this at such a tough stadium is remarkable and we’ll soon see the results of it. Sakho finds himself in a very difficult situation, he is pressed by Clyne, Lallana stops him giving it back to Agger, Lambert stops a pass to the keeper and Osvaldo makes sure he can’t pass it to Lucas. On the other side Rodriguez has come off his flank and marks the right sided centre-back, Skrtel, making sure a switch of play is not available. At the bottom we can also see the positon Schneiderlin, one of the defensive midfielders, takes up. He stops a pass in to the centre, while also providing cover for Clyne.
Now we can see the pass Sakho will want to make, along the flank to the winger. Schneiderlin is on his way to stop that pass. At the bottom of the picture we can see one of Southampton’s centre-backs, further showing just how aggressive they are.
Finally, in the last picture of this series, they win the ball. Schneiderlin gave cover to Clyne and intercepted Sakho’s attempted pass. The amount of Southampton players in the final third of the pitch is quite remarkable really. Six of them, in fact, excluding Fonte, the centre-back, who isn’t exactly in the final third, but a few metres in front of the halfway line.
This type of pressing works extremely well against teams who split their centre-backs and who want to play out from the back, like Liverpool do. In other games, for example at home to Cardiff, they sometimes press with an initial front two, but Pochettino’s idea is to keep the two defensive midfielders together in front of the centre-backs and let the attacking midfielder pick up the oppositions deep-lying playmaker. The key to this kind of pressing is energetic players, players who have the legs to do all these high-intensity sprints and Southampton clearly has that.
Also when going forward, Pochettino has some interesting ideas. First of all, the 4-2-3-1 formation changes into an altogether different shape when in possession. Usually, Steven Davis or James Ward-Prowse plays on the right side of the attacking midfield trio. When in possession they drift inside to create a midfield three while the full-backs push high up the pitch providing width and the left winger and the number 10 is given freedom to roam around.
Pochettino wants his team to attack the same way they defend, with energy and a high-tempo. The idea is to keep possession with a high-tempo passing game while also threatening with runs in behind the oppositions defence. The attacking players are free to float around and find little pockets of space in which to receive the ball and hurt the opposition. This gives the team a fluidity in attack which is very enjoyable to watch.
Here we can see what Pochettino wants. He keeps the centre-backs close together to make sure that if they lose the ball he’s got them working close together. The midfield three is created and the full-backs push up high. The two midfielders drops a bit wide in order to receive the ball without being pressed instantly.
Now, they’re in possession further up the pitch. Circled in red we have the midfield three, with Davis, who started on the right, the one on the right side. Circled in yellow is the full-backs and in white is Lallana.
And finally we have them closing in on the final third. The deepest of the centre-midfielder is just outside of the picture in this one, but in yellow we can see the full-backs again and the midfielders in red. In white we have the striker in the middle pushing down Cardiff’s defensive line and Lallana and Ramirez finding good positions behind the midfield.
This picture is from the Man City game where Southampton dominated the first half. We have the full-backs pushing high, the midfield three providing a base for the attack and a nice balance in the side and Rodriguez and Lallana finding space centrally while Lambert stays high. This is obviously how he wants them to play and it gives them the chance of controlling games by moving the ball around in central areas, which they are doing brilliantly well in most games.
Only possession will not win you games though. You need to threaten teams with your play and hurt them with your passes. Southampton’s cutting edge is runs in behind. As these images will illustrate, the players are willing to make these runs. Rickie Lambert often drops off, leaving space for others to run into. When they have a player facing the oppositions goal, runs will come for the player on the ball.
Southampton have enjoyed a fantastic season and that is the result of a successful academy, very good players, an impressive young manager and extremely well worked and well functioning tactics. The future looks extremely bright for the club on the South Coast with the quality on the players coming through. Even if Pochettino might still leave in the summer, the club are now an established Premier League club looking to continue the progress the Argentine has overseen so far. Hopefully he’ll stay and keep building but you never know in the world of football. However, wherever Pochettino might find himself next season, we all know that his team will be meticulously prepared and well drilled on the pitch. And of course, they will be enjoyable to watch.