Ralph Hasenhuttl – Southampton – Tactical Analysis

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When Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton lost 9-0 to Leicester City in October 2019, many thought the Austrian’s time at St. Mary’s was going to be short lived. Since then however, Hasenhuttl has proven himself more than capable of leading his team to better times, and currently has his team sitting 5th place in the Premier League table. Southampton under Hasenhuttl play in a clearly defined, structured, high pressing 4-2-2-2 system. Every single player fits into the style of play and the manager has clear expectations for how he wants his team to play and the values he wants to impose on his players. As we head into Matchday 12, here is our Tactical Analysis of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton in 2020-21.

system of play: 4-2-2-2

Hasenhuttl sets up primarily in a 4-2-2-2 formation, although this can shift into a traditional 4-4-2 in longer spells of time without the ball. The 4-2-2-2 formation, with inverted wingers, primarily functions as a method of pressing from the front and forcing their opposition into central areas right from the off-set. When the team fail to win possession right away, they may revert into a 4-4-2 mid-block instead.

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The shape is relatively fluid in both attack and defense and does not change drastically in any phase of the game. This has helped the players to gain comfortability in their roles, where most of the players in the Austrian’s current 11 have been with the club since Hasenhuttl’s first day in charge. In goal, Alex McCarthy has impressed again this season, even knocking on the door for an England call-up due to his performances. The British keeper’s already kept 4 clean sheets in 11 matches so far this season, making 35 saves in the process. In front of him, Hasenhuttl has kept a very solid back four of Kyle Walker-Peters, Jan Bednarek, Jannik Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand. Walker-Peters is one of the only new players to the eleven from last year, but his arrival from Tottenham Hotspur has gotten off without a hitch. Jack Stephens meanwhile is the only other defender to get minutes this season, playing either at left-back or centre-back. This solidity and consistency is impressive, but it could work against Hasenhuttl if an injury were to occur to any of his back-four or goalkeeper.

In front of the back-four, Oriol Romeu has come back into the side seamlessly to replace the Spurs departed Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and James Ward-Prowse has taken his game to another level in 2020-21. On the wings is where the former Leipzig manager engages in the most rotation, but Moussa Djenepo and Stuart Armstrong have been his favoured choices. Theo Walcott’s also been given a run of minutes since his arrival back at the club from Everton, but he’s operated as a striker more recently due to Danny Ings’ latest injury woe. Nathan Redmond’s time at the club is also certainly far from over as he continues to offer Southampton a useful threat down the left or right when called upon.

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At the very top, some degree of consistency has been disrupted. Danny Ings started the season in fine form with 5 goals and 2 assists in 7 matches. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury last month and has been forced out of the side. Following a successful surgery, Ings returned to action last week, sooner than first feared. But as he continues his recovery process, former Arsenal man Theo Walcott has come into the side seamlessly well to pair Che Adams, who is also looking at the top of his game at the moment. The consistency that Hasenhuttl has had in his Southampton side means that only 15 players have started matches this season. That continuity has aided in their success, as the players have developed a great understanding and chemistry between them.

Now, let’s get more into this tactical analysis, first examining what Southampton do so well without the ball – pressing from the front.

high pressing

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One of the hallmarks of Southampton’s approach under Ralph Hasenhuttl is the team’s high pressing system. Their 4-2-2-2 shape aids their narrow approach in attack, but it also aids their narrow approach in defense, forcing their opposition into central channels, where they have men in numbers. Their press is not only systematic, but it is also aggressive. The Saints have conceded the second most fouls per game in the league this season (13.1), behind only Brighton. Their aggressive pressing attempts are not only to stop teams from playing out from the back, but to force them into longer passes, where Southampton’s tall centre-backs or the goalkeeper can restart Southampton’s build-up. In longer spells of time without the ball, the Austrian’s side may set up in more of a 4-4-2 mid-block.

Along with this high press, Southampton also engage in a very high line. The two are heavily linked together, as they are at clubs like Liverpool and Bayern Munich, simply because of the distance between the lines needing to be lessened in a high press. The defenders and midfield two are forced to play higher up the pitch, as if they don’t, gaps will be created and exploited in their press. Their high line has been more effective in recent weeks, but it was one of their greatest weaknesses at the start of the season. The likes of Crystal Palace, Tottenham and even Brentford in the EFL Cup were able to take full advantage of their high line with quick counter attacking transitions in behind the back-line. Since then, Hasenhuttl’s side have evidently sorted out those concerns. Therefore, when looking at the overall picture, playing in this high-line/offside trap hybrid defensive structure, has worked to the Saints’ benefit this season.

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Finally, it has to be noted that Oriol Romeu has been a fantastic replacement for Pierre Emile Hojbjerg, without the club needing to spend a dime. Romeu’s been great in possession and in their own half, but he’s also been important to the press. The Spanish midfielder’s contributed to Southampton’s stellar defense with 3.7 tackles won per game and the most total number of tackles in the league. The other top tackler in the side is Stuart Armstrong, illustrating just how high Southampton press to try and win the ball back. Similarly, their top foulers include Djenepo, Armstrong, Romeu and Ward-Prowse, further emphasizing the areas of the pitch in which Southampton attempt to thwart attacks most often. Their midfield two and the two playing as inverted wingers are therefore perhaps the most crucial to Hasenhuttl’s press from the front, despite none of them actually being at the very front as strikers.

playing out from the back

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Southampton have spent more time in the middle third of the pitch than any other team so far this season. That might be something to do with their possession being just over 50/50, at 52%. But it also has a lot to do with the Saints’ slower build-up. Once getting the ball around the halfway line, the Saints haven’t looked to penetrate central channels quickly. Instead, they shift the ball around between their two centre-backs and the two men in front of them, James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu, before finding the right angles to advance forward. Ward-Prowse or Romeu will often drop in deeper to create a line of three when building out from the back, with the other player staying vertically in front of the back-line and the fullbacks pushing higher. Not a single player to participate in the Saints’ front four this season has made more than 40 passes per game, and Stuart Armstrong is the only one above 25. This illustrates just how much time their back-four and midfield two spend on the ball, all of whom are over 45 passes per game. This slower approach may afford Southampton more time on the ball, opening up new passing angles as their opposition’s impatience grows and they engage in a press. It also means that instead of forcing a pass when one might not be on, the Saints will simply re-circulate the ball through their centre-backs and start again.

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A final advantage to this slower approach is that the opposition can become frustrated and make silly fouls. With a player like James Ward-Prowse in their ranks, fouls are not what any team would like to give away to Southampton. The Saints have scored 7 goals from set-pieces so far this season – the joint most in the league alongside Chelsea. 4 of those have been from James Ward-Prowse deliveries, another 3 have been from James Ward-Prowse shots. However, set-pieces haven’t been the only way the Saints have scored goals this season.

NARROW APPROACH IN ATTACK

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Southampton have a very narrow approach in attack, complimented by their 4-2-2-2 box-like structure. Although they favour the left side to the right, they rarely deliver crosses or look to create scoring opportunities from wide areas in comparison to other Premier League sides. In fact, only Tottenham have had fewer crosses this season than Southampton. Instead, the team look for forward passes in central areas or out to their inverted wide men to cut inside and send in a through ball for Ings or Adams to exploit in behind the opposition defense. Djenepo is unsurprisingly the side’s top dribbler, but even he attempts well under 3 dribbles per game. The side have created a lot of their chances this season through intricate play into the penalty area, where the likes of Ings, Adams and Armstrong have linked up very nicely. Che Adams’ form has improved in front of goal, scoring 3 goals with 3 assists in his 11 matches so far. Meanwhile, Danny Ings is just as good as last season, with 6 goals in his 7 matches. Finally, Theo Walcott’s having a great first season back at the club with 1 goal and 2 assists in 6 matches.

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With each of the four being inverted rather than wide, their ability to link up with one another in dangerous areas at the top of the box is increased. 12 goals from open play is not bad by any means, and the Saints sit joint-fifth in that category. With the talent in their front four, Southampton don’t need to rely on their stellar set-pieces as the only way of creating chances. That said, due to the variety of different types of goals that they can score, Southampton are a far more dangerous side than most others in the league. This has been one of the primary keys to their success so far in 2020-21, as they sit 5th place in the table.

conclusion

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Ralph Hasenhuttl’s transformation of Southampton is something every footballing fan would dream of for their team. He’s taken the side from around the bottom of the table this time last year to toward the top of the table now. In fact, they topped the table for the first time in the history of their club (for about a day) back in early November. Hasenhuttl’s high pressing 4-2-2-2 structure has aided in their ability to attack in central areas, but also their ability to win the ball back high up the pitch. His team’s slower build-up has been something a bit underreported this season, and has also aided in the team’s ability to win a significant amount of matches this season and get their danger man James Ward-Prowse on the ball as much as possible. With their solid squad and stellar manager, Southampton currently sit in 5th place and could very well be on their way toward European football next season.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s intriguing Southampton side and their use of the 4-2-2-2 system. Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below and check out more of what we’ve got in store and all of our Tactical Analyses. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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-> Frank Lampard – Chelsea – Tactical Analysis
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