Five Secrets To Pochettino's Southampton Success
Victory against Fulham took Southampton to the heady heights of third in the Premier League. Daniel Storey examines the tactical changes that have brought such success.
1. Press, Press, Press
One of the evident concerns of Southampton under Nigel Adkins last season was their rather too leaky defence. In fact, they shipped 28 goals in their first ten matches - the worst in the league by nine.
Whilst the performances of Dejan Lovren and Jose Fonte have been deservedly praised, and indeed made No. 2 on our Top Ten Nice Surprises list, that the Saints have completely reversed their defensive weakness indicates more than just a change of personnel - there has been an alteration of approach and strategy.
The key to the tighter defence has been to cut off the threat at source (only Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester City have faced fewer shots) by utilising a tactic of deliberately pressing high up the field. To make such a tactic work, the front two are required to press the opposition central defenders, negating the opportunity for easy distribution into midfield. Thereafter, an attacking midfield player must sit on the opponent's deepest midfielder, with the aim of cutting out passes into the middle third.
If this works efficiently, the ball is then forced wide to the full backs, who in turn should be almost man marked by either a full-back or wide midfielder. Finally, this leaves the most defensive midfielder (in Southampton's case Victor Wanyama, bought specifically for the task) almost acting as a sweeper in front of the defensive line, a sheer protector. In the first half on Saturday, Fulham were completely overrun, harried into giving away cheap possession from which the home side could capitalise, effectively starting their attacks from halfway in Fulham's half.
It is an approach entwined with Pochettino's methodology, a hallmark of his tutorship under Marcelo Bielsa, and does require a huge commitment from his players in terms of tactical discipline. It is no surprise to hear players such as Nathaniel Clyne talk about the increase in his workload since Pochettino's takeover. "I have never pressed as much as he likes us to now but it is working, so why not? We seem to be doing well from it."
Why not indeed, the proof of which lies in the evidence - this is currently the Premier League's meanest defence.
2. Witness The Fitness
It is clear that a consistently high pressing game does make significant demands for fitness and stamina from the players concerned. As Pablo Osvaldo put it when playing under Pochettino at Espanyol, "At times you want to kill him because he makes you suffer like a dog. But you get the results."
However, whilst Southampton players are expected to work stronger (and Nathaniel Clyne has also spoken of never feeling fitter), it is important to note that this is not simply a case of running for the sake of running. Every player has an exact plan, an exact opposition player to target, which simply focuses the task at hand.
Morgan Schneiderlin highlighted exactly that as early as February, a fortnight after Pochettino had taken over from Adkins. "It may seem like we are running more, but really we are just running in a more organised way," was Schneiderlin's description of his manager's requirements. Economy of effort is a vital task if their tactics are to be maintained for the entire 90 minutes.
3. A Defensive Retreat
Whilst Pochettino has implemented this pressing policy to great effect, it is only intended for when the ball is in the opposition half.
As soon as the ball crosses halfway, mentality changes, with midfielders dropping deep to create a solidity that proves hard to break down. Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin aim to prevent central attacks, with Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez (when operating on the left) expected to track any full back runs.
As proved in the 2-0 victory over Swansea, when a lead is established this deliberately to a 'hold on to what we've got approach' in which being difficult to breach is the most welcome characteristic. Swansea dominated the second half but were unable to break their opponent's grip on the game. Six clean sheets in eight games is evidence enough of a successful strategy.
4. Cynical and clever in the tackle
One of the necessary results from Pochettino's pressing style is a tendency to give away fouls. In his only full season at Espanyol, the Argentinean's side received 108 yellow cards, a total 'bettered' by only five sides in La Liga. At Southampton, the same has occurred, and no Premier League side has given away more free kicks than the Saints' total of 127 (by way of comparison, Cardiff have conceded just 76).
The obvious worry with such a statistic is the potential disciplinary issues surrounding this. The pressing philosophy favoured by Pochettino could easily become unstuck with a few suspensions, such is the inexperience in Southampton's fringe players.
However, the statistics show that, actually, Southampton have been very clever when making their fouls. In the first half against Fulham Southampton had far more of the ball (67%) and yet made more tackles (23-12) and committed more fouls than their opponents (12-8) Most of these acted to slow down an opponent's progress near to the halfway line, allowing men to get in behind the ball. Such fouls rarely receive bookings, except under the persistent fouls infringement.
The closer you look, the more obvious the cynicism becomes. Four Southampton players expected to press most fervently (Morgan Schneiderlin, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Lambert) have given away a total of 38 fouls this season, but received just one booking between them. More fouls conceded that any other side, and yet only four have fewer bookings- a plan is being perfectly initiated.
5. Direct In Attack - Use Your Weapons
One of Southampton's shortfalls last season was a tendency to labour somewhat in the final third. Short passing was the norm, but too often moves became stagnant. Under Pochettino this season, the Saints have not abandoned this short-sharp passing approach, but instead managed to combine this with an ability to go direct as and when required.
Doing so simply seems logical, as in Rickie Lambert and Dani Osvaldo the Argentinean possesses to strikers comfortable with the ball to head or chest, both accomplished at bringing others into play. As if to emphasise the point, Southampton's first goal came from a set piece, whilst the second stemmed from a ball stood up to the back post, from which Lambert fed Rodriguez.
Southampton have played the fourth most long balls of any team so far this season, showing the intention to change, but perhaps the most obvious indicator of this is the lack of match time for Uruguayan Gaston Ramirez. The selection of both Lambert and Osvaldo (picked together for five of six games in which both have been fit and available) negates the necessity for a no. 10 such as Ramirez, who is yet to start a league game.