Tottenham Hotspur – Southampton: Hasenhüttl Wins The Chess Match (2-3)
After a dominant first half featuring some of the best play of the season, visitors Southampton were unfortunate to fall behind Tottenham in the second half. But this team, perhaps more than any other, acts as the personification of its manager on the pitch, and Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men duly made a breath-taking comeback that left Antonio Conte fuming on home ground.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
With Arsenal allowing one of their chief goal scorers to leave and Manchester United struggling to put the ball in the net, Tottenham Hotspur had the chance to build on their campaign to reach the top four. Despite the attrition suffered by the Londoners, they still have Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane, and they can now count on the tactical nous of Antonio Conte to navigate the remainder of the season. Having already beaten an impressive Brighton side, Spurs now faced another banana skin opponent in Southampton, with new signings Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur riding the bench.
Given Spurs’ issues against teams that press high, Ralph Hasenhüttl probably viewed this as a chance to claim a win against one of the ‘Big Six’ opponents. His side was nearly identical to the one that came away with a creditable draw against Manchester City, with Mohamed Elyounoussi replacing Nathan Redmond on the right flank.
Southampton expose Spurs’ issues against pressure
For the majority of the first half, Southampton dominated in a way that made it seem like it was still Nuno in charge. With Spurs trying to build from the back without Eric Dier, the visitors took the opportunity to do what they do best, pressing high and forcing Lloris to punt the ball.
Southampton’s high press versus Spurs. Adams has Romero in his cover shadow, and Broja presses Sánchez while covering Højbjerg.
Against the three center-backs, Southampton pressed with Armando Broja, Che Adams and Stuart Armstrong (who took on Ben Davies). With Lloris trying to play to his center-backs, the forwards pressed smartly in terms of denying access the double pivot with their cover shadow, exposing only the passing lanes that they wanted Spurs to access. Often, this took the form of allowing Davinson Sánchez to pass to Emerson Royal, who had Mohamed Elyounoussi duelling him for the ball before he could turn. During this time, Southampton’s double pivot covered their Spurs counterparts, with Adams, Broja and Armstrong removing the option of a back pass.
For the most part, this sort of pressure saw Lloris often boot the ball forward, and he almost never looked to build play by passing to Davies or Reguilon. This was somewhat understandable, because Kyle Walker-Peters was alert to the possibility of this pass and often had Reguilon covered. Behind him, Jan Bednarek did a commendable job of sweeping and covering the right flank, with Mohammed Salisu shifting across to cover the center. So coordinated were their movements that Spurs barely had any time on the ball; after three years under Hasenhüttl, it is no surprise that Southampton are so adept at the pressing aspect of football.
Dominating possession through the third man
Lest we think of them purely as a pressing team, the visitors also did plenty in possession. This was an unexpected development, because of the sheer superiority that they demonstrated in the first half. They achieved this by creating some wonderful sequences down the left, repeatedly using the principle of the third man in the process.
Southampton repeatedly used the third man – fullback Perraud – to orchestrate their offense.
With Spurs not pressing much, the double pivot of Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse had time and space between the midfield and forward lines. They had their wingers operating from the halfspaces, with the strikers operating further forward in the channels. With the wingers in those positions and Broja more than eager to make runs off the ball, Spurs could not afford to compromise their vertical compactness. This was the case because they were effectively playing with ten men, and allowing wingers to receive and turn in those rooms would have been a death sentence.
Further, with the center-backs offering good support and possessing decent passing range, the number of Southampton bodies in the middle meant that Spurs also had to be horizontally compact lest they be outnumbered in a zone. These calculations left Southampton’s fullbacks – particularly Romain Perraud – in space out wide.
This allows Southampton to engage in plenty of combinations down the left – for example, Broja would make a run outside to receive from Perraud, in turn passing to Elyounoussi who had taken his position. The winger’s layoff would be met by the fullback who had now come inside, and the lofted cross to the far post could be met by either Adams or right winger Stuart Armstrong. The interplay between those three could happen in a dizzying number of ways, and their potency meant that Lucas Moura and Sánchez were occupied throughout the half. With the visitors enjoying so much success down the left, it was little wonder that they ignored their right flank as a source of offense.
Spurs try to find some stability
In the first half, Spurs’ best moments came when they were able to slow down the game with circulation between the midfield and defense.
With #Southampton pressing on goalkicks & passes to Lloris, #Tottenham stabilised in possession by attracting the forwards & finding the free man.— RP⚽ (@RPftbl) February 10, 2022
- Hojbjerg draws JWP & passes to Winks who turns & passes to Son
- Hojbjerg/Cuti draw in SOU, freeing Winks for the switch #TOTSOU pic.twitter.com/ti8a5C4BYl
Southampton used a 4-4-2 medium block, and were outnumbered through the middle against Spurs’ 3-2 base. This allowed them to find some stability as they were able to access the third man, who could progress the play. Spurs’ opener came from just such a sequence, after Davies’ ball out to Emerson was recovered by Moura.
However, time on the ball was hard to come by, with Southampton pressing Spurs to within an inch of their lives. At halftime, it was evident that something would have to change, and Conte appeared to have instructed his players to press with equal fervor in the second period. This mostly happened through a 5-1-3-1 shape, as Pierre-Emile Højbjerg pushed up behind Kane and between Son and Moura to press Romeu.
In possession, there seemed to be a slight tweak for Spurs, as the wingbacks were pushed higher with Winks and Sánchez acting as fullbacks in a four-man defense. Ahead, Højbjerg was at the base with Son and Moura acting almost as attacking midfielders, and they often tried to drop and play balls into the wingbacks who could advance the play. Sánchez was a featured part of the offense in this phase, sliding through balls into the halfspace from more advanced positions.
The Saints strike back
With Spurs knocking persistently, something was bound to happen, and the 70th minute brought a second goal for the hosts as Son scored from a wonderful pass by Moura. The goal was the result of play breaking down and seemed to discount a foul committed by Emerson in the buildup, but Southampton would strike back through Elyounoussi just ten minutes later. For once, the opportuntiy would arrive from the right flank, and just three minutes later, Adams would add a third to complete the comeback. The goal would arrive after Southampton passed back to the right after overloading Spurs on the left, and a header over Lloris sealed the deal for the Saints.
Started watching #TOTSOU to determine why Conte/#Tottenham lost but I think the simplest answer is that they were the victims of a Hassenhüttl masterclass.— RP⚽ (@RPftbl) February 10, 2022
Love this win for #Southampton, hope they build on it going forward pic.twitter.com/te5FvfzgUo
This was, simply put, one of the best performances of the season by any side. The visitors ran the show in the first half, and managed to come back into the game by sticking to their game plan. Conte and Spurs have several issues to work on – but for today, the reaction needs to be about Southampton’s outstanding performance against a side with significantly more resources and talent.
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