Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe takes a tactical look at Sunday's meeting between Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur at St Mary's...
The season may have only just begun but the games are already coming thick and fast. Fresh off midweek action against Brentford, Southampton welcome Tottenham Hotspur to St Mary’s on Sunday to kick off the home Premier League campaign.
While Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men have been scheming away in training, preparing for this bout, José Mourinho’s group have been to Bulgaria, played a Europa League qualifier and returned whilst simultaneously putting the building blocks in place for the return of Gareth Bale.
To say they’ve been the busier of the two clubs would be an understatement, and Saints will hope that plays in their favour when the whistle blows at midday on Sunday, having had more time to train and plan for the bout.
Here are three keys to victory over José Mourinho’s men.
Space to attack
If Tottenham’s opening weekend performance against Everton is anything to go by, Southampton are going to find the sort of room they love in attack on Sunday.
Spurs utilised a severely disconnected 4-2-3-1 formation that left four players in attack, four deep at the back and huge swathes of space – 25-30 yards of it – between them, with one or two white shirts desperately trying to cover too much ground for comfort.
Everton’s ability to win the ball and spring forward, playing through the lines quickly and concisely, put them in a series of excellent positions to create or score.
Should Spurs produce a similar setup, the situation is ripe for Saints to do the same – and produce a performance that would remind us of the 2-2 draw at the Emirates Stadium last year.
Moussa Djenepo’s ball-carrying, Danny Ings’s drifting and Ché Adams’s powerful running can cause all sorts of issues in the transitions Spurs allow.
They can also do the same back to you, though: Son Heung-Min, Harry Kane and co. played in a direct fashion themselves and forced great games from the Toffees’ midfield trio off the ball.
Giovani Lo Celso, Tanguy Ndombele and enhanced creativity
While the Everton performance lacked imagination and ingenuity, Thursday’s win over Lokomotiv Plovdiv did not.
The major difference between the two showings was the creativity levels in midfield. They went from bereft of ideas and structure to, at the very least, solving the first part, carving through the Bulgarian outfit over and over. The win should have been far more comfortable.
The strength of opponent must be acknowledged here, but just as important was the introduction of fit-again Lo Celso to the starting XI.
The Argentine linked the lines in attack brilliantly and delivered key pass after key pass, setting up chances for Son and Steven Bergwijn, then forcing a scrambled goal-line clearance with a wicked corner.
Of all players, Kane was by far the biggest benefactor of Lo Celso’s presence. Against Everton the England striker attempted more tackles (three) than shots (two) and registered barely any touches in the box; Plovdiv was a different story, getting six off, four on target and one in the net. By the end of the match Ndombele was on too, offering drive off the ball and scoring the winner.
It was a midfield makeup vastly different to the one that faced Everton; it went from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko to Højbjerg, Lo Celso and Ndombele.
Will Mourinho pull back on the creativity for the Premier League or retain it? The decision will shape the size and difficulty of Saints’ afternoon task.
It goes against a fair few clichés, but Tottenham have been weak defending set-pieces under Mourinho’s stewardship. The Portuguese is famous for his defensive preparation and solidity, but dead balls into the box have proved an issue for the Lilywhites all year long.
Both goals they’ve conceded this season have been headers from set-pieces, first Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s powerful effort for Everton, then Georgi Minchev’s close-range nod for Plovdiv.
It’s a familiar story: Burnley, Aston Villa and Wolves all racked up an xG (expected goals) score of 1.0 or higher solely from corners in games against them last season.
It’s a curious development, as Mourinho’s reputation would suggest this is more likely a strength than a weakness, and the club have plenty of aerial presences, from Kane, through midfield, into the centre-back corps – and they even have one of the biggest full-back pairings in Ben Davies and Matt Doherty.
These early season struggles mark corners and free-kicks out as one of the primary ways Southampton can get the better of Spurs on Sunday.