How Southampton used positional automatisms to gain advantages v. Man United

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A week ago, I detailed the differences between positional play, rotation and interchange using examples from top clubs around Europe. Perhaps there is another term to add to the list, with what I’m dubbing ‘positional automatisms’ or ‘positional patterns’. These patters popped up all over Southampton’s recent 1-1 draw against Manchester United, where the positions that certain players took up over the course of a game became incredibly different from their orthodox starting position. An example of this could be Manchester City’s use of inverted fullbacks, or Chris Wilder’s use of overlapping-centre-backs, which we bracketed last week as falling into ‘positional play’ and ‘positional rotation’ respectively.

But in truth, there was no real rotation or positional play to Southampton during the match. It’s not as though wingers inverted when wing-backs situated themselves wide. Instead, one specific winger was always inside against United, and the other was almost always wide. Similarly, one fullback was more or less always deeper and inside, as the other was always wide and overlapping. So with that, we take a look at how Southampton used these positional patterns or ‘automatisms’ to sound smarter, against Ralf Rangnick’s lackluster Manchester United, in order to achieve a stellar 1-1 draw.

Particularly, we examine a few key faces that took the game by the scruff of the neck in helping the Saints secure the draw as they shifted in and out of their ‘normal’ positions – most notably Mohamed Elyounoussi and Oriol Romeu.

mohammed elyounoussi

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Southampton are known for using inverted wingers in their 4-2-2-2 formation. But against United, they used Mohamed Elyounoussi in ways that go way beyond inversion. The Norwegian played more like an attacking midfielder in Hasenhuttl’s attacking set-up, seeking space in between the lines. The 27-year-old constantly looked to outnumber United’s midfield two in central areas, as they became attracted to the quality of Romeu and Ward-Prowse on the ball. Stuart Armstrong held a wider position on the right side, where Romeu and Ward-Prowse could then venture forward and seek overloads in wide spaces down the right. If they did exactly that, either one at a time or together, Armstrong would then venture inside. Kyle Walker-Peters would also occasionally get on the overlap and join the attack, especially in creation stages or quick attacking transitions, which would then mean Armstrong would tuck inside. This showcases some degree of positional play. But Elyounoussi’s role was different.

Romain Perraud played like the left winger in attack instead, with the Norwegian constantly operating in central areas, behind the front two. Immediately after winning the ball, the central midfielders would then look to go direct into Elyounoussi’s path as he situated himself in between the lines. The strikers could then create holes in the defense by shifting wide, where balls over the top could have been used to create further advantages. Importantly though, in other moments Che Adams could drop in deep instead, as Elyounoussi floated higher, showing some degree of genuine rotation.

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If Elyounoussi had the quality to be more progressive in possession and a genuine creator, Southampton would have a genuinely dangerous ‘number ten’ on their hands. Instead, Elyounoussi’s role in finding pockets of space in those central areas, particularly to the left of McTominay or between the Scot and Pogba, allowed other players to then work magic of their own further up the pitch. Armando Broja for example often received the second pass from Elyounoussi, and used his sheer speed and strength to escape United’s defenders and shoot.

Overall, in the classification of where Elyounoussi played on the day, we have a dilemma. He started as a left winger and held a defensive role on the left out of possession, but never actually operated as a left winger in Southampton’s attacking phases. So a better way to classify his positional movement would be to describe it as specific patterns in specific moments, whereby he moved away from the left into central spaces. In other words, what Ralph Hasenhuttl and I dub ‘automatisms’.


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Oriol Romeu’s position was also of major note against United, and the 30-year-old defensive midfielder was an easy man of the match. Romeu perfectly dropped in and out of ‘normal’ defensive midfield positions, sometimes playing as a centre-back and other times venturing even higher. He perfectly played as the ‘number six’ in the team, while still taking his moments to be that same box-to-box midfielder that his partner James Ward-Prowse loves to be.

For most of the game, the Spanish midfielder operated alongside Ward-Prowse in a 4-4-2 defensive block, shuffling with the play. Then in Southampton’s 3+2 progression, Kyle Walker-Peters joined the centre-backs, and Romeu and Ward-Prowse situated themselves in front. As Mohammed Salisu stepped out or carried the ball forward, the 30-year-old midfielder would then cover in behind. This was all very standard and normal. But the same cannot be said for Southampton’s brief experimentation with a 5-3-2, whereby Romeu became the sweeper in the side.

Whether this was a Hasenhuttl tweak or the Spaniard’s own tactical decision, it briefly helped the Saints counter-act Ronaldo-inspired courses of action. With Southampton playing with some degree of a man-oriented-press or man-to-man marking scheme on specific danger men, the centre-backs were sometimes drawn out of position. Jan Bednarek would step too far in the quest to track Ronaldo’s movement in deep, which Jadon Sancho could then exploit in behind. Similarly, Salisu did the same on Bruno Fernandes, with Romain Perraud already tracking back from a high position, and Marcus Rashford taking advantage. That’s exactly how United scored their goal, with Southampton men out of position and one after the other needing to be covered as the dominoes fell into place for United and Sancho scored.

But in other moments, Romeu’s defensive positioning massively helped the Saints overcome this disadvantage. Even if Ronaldo beat Salisu, you just knew Romeu would sweep in to save the day. His recovery pace in transition to drop back in this third centre-back role was surprisingly quick, and he often stayed in the role in the Saints’ low-block as United circulated the ball. This 5-3-2 structure continued to force Manchester United wide and toward the touch-line in their creation stage, giving Hasenhuttl’s side exactly what they wanted in stunting central penetration.

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Throughout the second half, Romeu was then more busy when it came to stepping out against Scott McTominay, which meant Elyounoussi dropped in behind in the Spaniard’s ‘normal’ position. This is an example of an automatism at its finest, or what you could also describe as positional interchange, with one player covering for another. But with this becoming a pattern over time, we suggest it goes beyond just interchange, into tactical intelligence both from the players and the manager himself.


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Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton used intelligent positional patterns (or automatisms) to gain crucial advantages against United, and come out with a massive away draw. Particularly vital on the day to finding space and gaining tactical victories were Oriol Romeu and Mohamed Elyounoussi, who took on various roles over the course of the match away from their ‘normal’ position. At times, you could classify Romeu as a third centre-back and Elyounoussi as an attacking midfielder, much more than what their role supposedly was on paper. These positional automatisms could be incredibly intriguing to study in the future, as opposition teams use specific players in order to overcome their opposition.

So there it is! How Southampton used positional automatisms to gain advantages against Ralf Rangnick’s men. Be sure to check out more of our Match Analyses, and follow on social media via the links below @mastermindsite! Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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