After 11 years in the Premier League, Southampton were relegated to the Championship following the 22/23 campaign, ending over a century of PL football on the South Coast. It was only in the 2016/17 campaign when they were playing in the Europa League under Claude Puel after taking over from Ronald Koeman. The Saints have seen success over the last 10 years under Mauricio Pochettino and Ralph Hasenhuttl but they now face the challenge of getting promoted at the first time of asking under newly employed young coach, Russell Martin.
With more than half of the 23/24 season complete, Southampton find themselves in second place, one point above Leeds and with a game in hand, as well as two above Ipswich. This position in the table comes after a record-breaking 24-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, having won five of their last six. They will be looking to get back to the big time at the first time of asking; boasting a squad of players equipped with ability and PL experience.
Russell Martin’s Impact
Russell Martin is the new man at the helm after taking over at the beginning of the season. He has revolutionised the way in which Southampton play football, bringing joy back to the St Mary’s Stadium. A coach with previous managerial experience at both MK Dons and Swansea took the role looking to implement his impressive possession based football and take a team to the PL for the first time in his managerial career.
The Saints have the highest possession stats in the division, amassing an average of 66.4% per 90. Ball dominant sides like this may not always create big chances, however Southampton are the opposite. They have created 76 big chances this campaign, the third-most in the league and with the devastating efficiency they have in the attacking areas, it is no surprise to see they have scored the second-most goals (55) behind Leicester (64).
Martin has also effectively implemented his playstyle with the use of inverted full-backs. Kyle Walker-Peters and Ryan Manning are both technical secure full-backs who have been given the licence to invert during the build-up. However, this tactic has been slightly altered since the beginning of the campaign with the full-backs less eager to invert until the press has been beaten; now opting for a 4-1 build-up system with Flynn Downes dropping deeper allowing Southampton to outnumber their opposition in the build-up before allowing their full-backs to invert. A combination of width in build-up alongside a narrower attacking pattern is what makes them so effective; leaving their wingers isolated in 1v1s (where they are at their strongest).
With Southampton committing so many bodies forward in the final third, their biggest flaw would be how open they are to counter-attacks. One way in which Russell Martin has adapted to this is by making fouls on the break. Southampton rank 12th for fouls committed in the league however have the third most yellow cards with 73. These so-called ‘tactical fouls’ allow The Saints to regroup when facing a counter-attack. Despite this being so stigmatised in modern football, when employed correctly it can be very effective in matching a team’s tactical principles.
Despite playing for the Saints, The Angel of the North has shown he can cut his teeth at this level. Having scored plenty of goals for Blackburn at this level, he got his move to Southampton but the PL looked a step too far for the Geordie. However, this season he has shown he is more than capable of scoring goals at this level.
Armstrong is a pacey forward with adept ball-striking abilities. He is very clinical in and around the 18-yard box and poses a threat to all defences in the division. However, this season he has adapted his game to not only that of a goal-scorer but a big chance creator too. He is top of the charts for goals and assists, notching 26 G/A so far this season.
In this clip you can see the unselfish nature that Armstrong has added to his game, laying off the ball when inside the box in order to create a better goal-scoring opportunity for Che Adams.
Watford (a): SOLD OUT 👏
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) January 16, 2024
This second clip highlights Armstrong’s main strength, his clinicality inside the box. Taking one touch to set himself, looking up to see the keeper’s positioning and then a neat finish. A lethal striker at this level.
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) January 14, 2024
The English full-back is more than capable at this level and should probably be cutting his teeth at PL level but with promotion looking like it’s on the horizon, KWP will stay with the Saints. A full-back who has played in the Premier League for both Spurs and Southampton has found himself as one of Russell Martin’s key men. With the tactical approach employed at Southampton, KWP has all the assets to slot perfectly into the right-back role.
He is a technically secure full-back who thrives when going forward without neglecting his defensive duties. A tricky customer with an abundance of pace to match proves to be a dangerous customer for the opposition. His standout feature is how he uses his low centre of gravity to manipulate the ball, attract challenges to then bypass them with close control and rapid bursts of acceleration.
The Saints managed to keep hold of their star men during the January transfer window with KWP being one of them. If they manage to maintain their current form, he will be an important player for them upon their arrival back in the Premier League.
Main Talking Points
- Southampton have always been renowned for having an impressive academy being ranked as Cat1, with many of their graduates having gone on to play at the top level: Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Luke Shaw and Alan Shearer. Players in the current game are aware of this and will be attracted to the prospect of developing through the ranks at the Saints; with the most recent: Tyler Dibling, Jayden Maghoma and Samuel Amo-Ameyaw all featuring for the side in both the league and the FA Cup.
- The infrastructure of the club is very professional and sustainable. Before Darren Mowbray was appointed as Head of Recruitment in a recent restructuring of the club, Joe Shields was the man in the role, previously of Manchester City and now employed by PL giants Chelsea as their Co-Director of Recruitment. This explains why Southampton have many former City graduates on their books with the likes of Gavin Bazunu, Samuel Edozie and Shea Charles following in the footsteps of recently departed Romeo Lavia. This shows the sustainability of the club as they take the risk on talented young players with the chance of selling them for increased fees later down the line. Long-term development is just as important as short-term success, a key feature of Southampton’s project.
- Their squad is stocked with talent, the two most recent recruitments, Joe Rothwell and David Brooks both having PL and EFL experience which will help during the course of the season because they know what it requires to gain promotion from the division.
It’s an exciting time to be a Southampton fan and despite their recent relegation from the Premier League they’re showing they want to return at the first time of asking and re-establish themselves as a PL club. Fans demanded improvement and right now, that is exactly what they are getting.
By: Ben Sheldrick / @benshlrz
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Isaac Parkin – PA Images