Southampton - Arsenal tactical analysis Premier League

Southampton – Arsenal: High Octane Southampton Impress on Hasenhüttl’s Premier League Home Debut (3-2)

Southampton’s high pressing and quick counterattacking took Arsenal by surprise. Some more proactive half-time changes from Unai Emery kept the visitors in the game but Charlie Austin came up with a late winner, meaning Southampton secured the first Premier League victory of the Ralph Hasenhüttl era.

Tactical analysis and match report by Martyn Davis.

Southampton made two changes from their 1-0 defeat at Cardiff. Danny Ings came in for Austin up front and Mario Lemina was taken out in favour of Maya Yoshida as their Austrian coach switched to a 3-4-3. Having suffered a loss in Hasenhüttl’s first game in charge, they were looking to make up for that with a victory over Arsenal.

Unai Emery made a whole raft of changes from Arsenal’s victory over Qarabag midweek, with only Laurent Koscielny staying in the lineup. Four changes were also made from the team that faced Huddersfield a week ago with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alex Iwobi, Nacho Monreal and the previously mentioned Koscielny coming in. Granit Xhaka dropped into a makeshift center-back role as Emery returned to a 3-4-3 formation.

Arsenal had been on a 23 game unbeaten run before this match and had seen performances improve over recent weeks, with a switch to a back three making the most of available personnel.

Southampton’s press causes Arsenal buildup struggles

Arsenal predictably dominated possession in the early stages of the game. Southampton set up in a 5-4-1 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. and tried to close off access towards the middle of the field. Situationally, they would push up into a man oriented press where they would match Arsenal’s 3-4-3 with their own formation.

This was done in a way that forced buildup into wide areas. The near side winger would step out to the outside center-back and block the pass into midfield, forcing the ball out to the wing-back. Southampton’s own near side wing-back would respond to this by pushing up.

Similarly, if Arsenal’s winger showed for the ball, Southampton’s center-back would follow tightly. The idea was to direct Arsenal into a zone where they could be closed in with tight man marking and a long ball could be forced.


Arsenal's 5-2-2-1 formation in possession against Southampton's 5-4-1 in defense

Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation in possession against Southampton’s 5-4-1 defense.

Even when Arsenal were not directed into this pressing trap, they struggled to break through Southampton as the home side were very disciplined in the early part of the match. The defenders were constantly aware of any potential threat as they immediately stepped out onto any player positioned between the lines to make sure they could not receive and turn. Passing lanes were cut diligently and the defensive block shifted in unison.

The only chance of any kind that Arsenal had in the first twenty minutes came from a ball over the top to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, showing their failure to penetrate with flat ball movement.

Later in the half, though, some lapses of concentration started to creep into Southampton’s game. The first evidence of this came when Iwobi picked up the ball on the wing and attracted three players towards him with a short dribble. This freed up left wing-back Monreal who whipped in a cross for Mkhitaryan. The Armenian buried the chance which brought the score level after Southampton had taken the lead a few minutes earlier.

A flurry of promising attacks followed as Mkhitaryan was able to draw out Jannik Vestergaard and attack the spaces in behind and Lucas Torreira sprinted into the box unnoticed, getting on the end of a Mattéo Guendouzi through-ball.


Passmap Southampton - Arsenal 3-2 Premier League

Arsenal’s passmap shows how Xhaka remains important in Arsenal’s ball progression, even from a center-back position. However, progression from midfield suffered from his absence there.


Southampton aggressive on the counter-attack

Every time the home side won the ball they looked to attack at pace. The idea was to create space for the front three to run at the defense. This was done in a variety of ways.

Nathan Redmond was the primary outlet, unsurprisingly given his reputation of being able to carry the ball at pace. He looked to either drift centrally, receive and sprint towards goal or pick up the ball on the wing and drive inward. Stuart Armstrong and Danny Ings tended to drop deep before receiving.

The midfielders, particularly Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, were given the job of picking out a dangerous first pass or even carrying the ball forward themselves. Vestergaard in central defense was also somewhat adventurous in possession while the two wing-backs bombed forward in support.

Southampton's 5-2-3 formation in possession against Arsenal's 5-4-1 defense

Southampton’s 3-4-3 formation in possession against Arsenal’s 5-4-1 defense.

Although Southampton were not massively productive in terms of chance creation, these moves did help to relieve pressure. Sometimes they even counterpressed high up the pitch followed a failed counterattack, temporarily putting Arsenal on the back foot. They also took the lead in the twentieth minute with an outswinging cross from Matt Targett that found the head of Ings. Despite the aforementioned Arsenal equaliser, Southampton went into the break 2-1 up after Ings scored another header on the cusp of half-time — this time from a Redmond cross.


Passmap Southampton - Arsenal 3-2 Premier League

Southampton’s passmap shows the direct passing style that Hasenhüttl is known for. Few touches at the back, more in midfield, and most up front, with Redmond.


Unai Emery switches formation

With Arsenal not having led a single match at half-time in this Premier League season, Emery has developed a reputation for changing tactics at the midway point. This was yet another example. The injured Héctor Bellerín was withdrawn and Alexandre Lacazette, who joined Aubameyang up front, was introduced. Stephan Lichtsteiner took up a position at right-back and Arsenal switched to a 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 formation.

This allowed more mobility for the forwards as they could pull wide without leaving the center unoccupied. Iwobi and in particular Mkhitaryan provided the creativity to this increased movement. A flick-on met the run of Aubameyang who found himself one-against-one with the keeper right at the start of the second half. Lacazette was also causing problems as Southampton struggled to adjust to the increased forward presence.

The visitors found the equalizer in the 53rd minute, with Oriol Romeu being robbed of the ball in his own half and Mkhitaryan’s subsequent effort being deflected into the net.


Southampton clinch win amid scrappy end to the game

The match became increasingly stretched as both teams struggled to retain intensity while still being determined to find the winner.

Emery brought on Mesut Özil for Iwobi so that Arsenal now had two playmakers sitting behind two center-forwards. It was a decision that failed to pay off as Özil was rarely able to get on the ball and influence the game. If anything, their possession game was deteriorating and Arsenal relied on set pieces, crosses and counterattacks to create chances.

Southampton’s press started to falter as they put less pressure on the ball and failed to attack with pace. A disallowed goal off a corner was one of their few positive moments of the latter stages. The introduction of Shane Long and Charlie Austin did little to change this until the 85th minute when Højbjerg released Long into the space behind Monreal. His cross to the far post found Austin, who scored Southampton’s third headed goal of the game.

The home team turned up the notch on the press for the last few minutes and successfully held on.

Expected goals plot Southampton - Arsenal 3-2 Premier League


Southampton picked up their first home win for eight months – a great way to welcome Ralph Hasenhüttl to Saint Mary’s. Their hard pressing and ambitious approach to attack was a good antidote to Arsenal’s possession based style. If they can avoid lapses of concentration and find a way to sustain the press without becoming exhausted in the second half, they may become a force to be reckoned with. Survival seems more likely than not at this point, so it will be interesting to see how their season turns out.

Arsenal are not the first team to fall victim to the “new manager bounce” and they will not be the last, but that will be little consolation for Unai Emery. This defeat has taken the wind out of their sails a bit after their switch to a back three yielded better performances on both sides of the ball.

This match may also reveal a deeper problem as Arsenal once again found themselves behind going into the second half. Not even Emery’s half-time magic was enough to rescue the situation and this should ring alarm bells for them. If Arsenal want a place in the top four, it is about time they start delivering complete performances.



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Martyn Davis (20) is an aspiring coach and analyst who spends his time reading, learning and — more recently — writing about football tactics. He is a Liverpool fan who primarily watches the Premier League but tries to broaden his tactical horizons by watching as many different leagues and teams as possible. He writes for his own football blog as well as Between the Posts. [ View all posts ]


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