The tactical secrets behind Southampton's stunning league campaign

JJ Bull
·7 min read
The tactical secrets behind Southampton's stunning league campaign
The tactical secrets behind Southampton's stunning league campaign

Southampton are enjoying the benefits of clear vision, excellent coaching, and patience. By letting Ralph Hasenhuttl work his magic and stick to the plan, they have become one of the most difficult teams in the league to play against and are riding a wave of momentum, beating the mighty Liverpool 1-0 to move four points off the top of the table.

Hasenhuttl dropped to his knees at the final whistle, emotionally spent after watching his players navigate that deeply tricky tie but the win was no fluke. Southampton have a well-balanced, highly drilled squad, and play with a ferocious intensity that makes their fascinating tactical setup function exactly as it should. 

So, what is it they do so well and how do they do it? 

Southampton's 4-4-2

Southampton's system is built around a compact 4-4-2 which attacks as a wide 2-4-4, designed to overload opponents in transition and restrict all opposition movement through the middle of the park, constricting and expanding like an accordion depending on where the ball is.

Southampton football formation 02
Southampton football formation 02

They play out from the back to allow players to get in position while in control of possession but rapidly transition between their different forms all over the pitch. At goal kicks, for example, they shift everybody to one side then quickly open up the pitch to swarm the opposition.

Southampton football formation 01
Southampton football formation 01

The formation constantly evolves in real time while the players within the shape rotate positions and carry out each other's roles. At any point in an attacking move, the striker can be the winger while a midfielder covers the full-back but the key is having everyone tuned in to the same fluctuating frequencies. It looks automated.

This average positions map from the 1-1 draw with Arsenal show that Danny Ings (number nine) tended to receive the ball on the left wing despite starting as a central forward, while Stuart Armstrong (17) - the left sided midfielder - ran with the ball most often through central areas. 

Average positions
Average positions

Hasenhuttl has spent the past two years drilling specific instructions on the training ground so repeatedly that he refers to players as having developed “automatisms” and we see this in how the team adjusts its shape to different situations.

How Southampton win the ball back

Southampton press high and block low, showing play into pre-determined areas in the opposition half so they can outnumber and surround the player on the ball. If the high press is bypassed, the unit retreats, constricts, and players adjust their positions slightly so that forward passes through the middle are blocked.

No matter how deep Southampton are defending, they always have two players wide and two players central ready to break and exploit any turnovers.

This allows them to go from this defensive 4-4-2 below:

Saints defensive shape
Saints defensive shape

... into this attacking 2-4-4 a matter of seconds after winning the ball near their own area.

Saints attacking shape
Saints attacking shape

The rest of the team moves up behind those directly involved with the attack and the shape ends up looking something like this diagram.

In order to attack like this and catch the opposition in transition, Southampton need their opponents to have sent players forward to attack. It is the way they quickly recycle the ball after winning the ball back that then allows these rapid counter-attacks, something which has, again, been honed on the training ground over time.

Within the main team shape there are smaller units, with players positioned in triangles to allow short, sharp passes when under pressure and to facilitate third-man runs.

The patterns and positions are so automated that players don’t even need to scan for a team-mate when shifting the ball quickly after winning it, instinctively aware of where a teammate should be and able to pass blindly to somewhere and someone they know will be in space. 

If Southampton win the ball near their own box, the first pass tends to be fired wide, the next pass is played forward, and the next pass goes diagonally backwards to the first passer in the move. Suddenly there are runners elsewhere to hit longer passes to. It's a mix of short and direct passing, with a focus on vertical play.

Drawing the opponent out

Southampton's attacking play depends on being able to go up the pitch with momentum so that they catch teams in transition (which in theory is when they are most vulnerable), something they can't do when the defending team sets up in an organised block. One particularly devious ploy that they use to avoid this is passing backwards from advanced attacking areas, even when there's an opportunity to cross or get closer to goal.

We saw it a few times against Liverpool, with Kyle Walker-Peters on the ball, in the example below, forming a front four. Danny Ings is the main attacking threat from crosses but is left wing, so the chances of scoring from a cross played into the area are low. Walker-Peters takes a beat.

Southampton 1
Southampton 1

In slowing play down, Liverpool have a chance to get back into their defensive shape and the chance to score is gone. Walker-Peters then passes back towards his defence.

Liverpool shape
Liverpool shape

Liverpool then push forward to follow the ball and try to win it back close to half way, but Southampton are in position to recycle the ball in their little triangles.

James Ward-Prowse passes (1) back to Jan Bednarek, who passes (2) to Ibrahima Diallo, who has three available options for the next pass. Behind Diallo, Liverpool's defensive line is squeezing up. One smart pass over the top could spring the offside trap and play Southampton's pacy forward line in behind but on this occasion, Diallo is fouled.

Saints passes
Saints passes

Southampton don't simply lump the ball into the box, nor do they patiently probe in the final third. They are built to harrass, hassle, wait... and spring a trap. 

The not-so-secrets behind the success

Southampton are great fun to watch but horrible to play against. They outrun almost every opponent they face, have conceded the fourth-highest number of fouls of any team in the league, and have made more tackles than any other team, mixing a blend of aggressive defending with clever progressive attacking play.

"If you want to compete as a smaller club against bigger clubs and still have a chance then you have to do something different," Hasenhuttl explained in November. "Otherwise, in terms of individual quality they will always have more than you have. You have to find a different way."

Southampton make up for a supposed lack of quality against the bigger teams with an intensity that some opponents just can’t handle; high pressing and counter-pressing are fundamental to making the system work.

Southampton rank sixth in the league for 'pressed sequences per game' (sequences where the opposition have three or fewer passes and the move ends in their half). 

Southampton pressing
Southampton pressing

.... and are third behind only Leeds and Liverpool in 'opposition passes allowed per defensive action'. Basically, Southampton don't give their opponents a second to think.

Southampton pressing intensity
Southampton pressing intensity

Making use of set-pieces

Another increasingly not-so-secret weapon is James Ward-Prowse’s delivery from dead balls. Nine of Southampton’s 26 league goals have come from set pieces, often a result of crosses whipped into the near post towards bodies blocking the goalkeeper. Ward-Prowse has created 17 chances from set plays, the second-most of any player in the league this season, behind only Mason Mount on 20.

Hasenhuttl has laughed off suggestions that Southampton could finish in the top four and the underlying data supports the theory that they might be riding a wave. Southampton's Expected Goals of 20.23 vs actual goals scored of 26 suggests their form will eventually level out, but nobody will care about under-the-hood metrics if the players continue to be rewarded for their high-intensity performances.

Great players are often able to beat the xG model (Harry Kane does every single season, for example), and Danny Ings has scored seven goals from an xG of 4.31 on his own this season, including the stunning finish against Liverpool which he definitely meant.

Either Ings and his teammates are really on form and getting lucky from time to time, or Southampton have better players than many realised. 

At the moment their position of sixth is fully merited and if they can keep the momentum going and avoid injuries, they could finish even higher, a fitting reward for persevering with Hasenhuttl during difficult times. Southampton have one of the best coaches in European football in charge of their team but without a little patience, we may never have known.