On Sunday afternoon, Southampton cruised past a blunt Sheffield United side 3-0 at St Mary’s Stadium to go third in the table. This meant that Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side was only behind Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool in the Premier League table. They now have 23 points from 12 matches. The Saints were always in the driving seat throughout the match as they dominated and did not let them have even one shot on target on their goal. Ralph Hasenhuttl sensed a vulnerability in the opposition defence, thus his side launched several raking balls over the top to bisect their defence. They were brimming in confidence and Chris Wilder’s side got outplayed. They battled and scraped for everything, but the Saints always had the upper hand as they were reveling in the Hasenhuttl high press. The Blades are now looking to draw inspiration for their survival hopes as they are in a bad run and Chris Wilder could not pick the right team and system for his team.
This tactical analysis will tell you about the tactics used by both teams. The analysis will also highlight the key factors because of which the Blades were left to bemoan a catalogue of defensive errors.
Ralph Hasenhuttl opted for his favourite 4-4-2 formation with Alex McCarthy in goal. The Saints’ backline remained unchanged. Danny Ings made his way into the starting XI in place of Moussa Djenepo and led the attack for the Saints with Che Adams. Theo Walcott was dropped into midfield to accommodate for the return of Ings. Djenepo was dropped to the bench for this game.
Sheffield United: 5-3-2
The Blades started in their usual 5-3-2 formation with Aaron Ramsdale in goal, who still doesn’t have a clean sheet to his name this season. Chris Wilder made four changes in the starting line-up. In defence, the 38-year-old Phil Jagielka came in place of Kean Bryan and Enda Stevens replaced Max Lowe as a left wing back. Ethan Ampadu returned from injury and replaced John Lundstram while Billy Sharp made his first start since the first matchday and he led the attack for the Blades with Oliver Mc Burnie.
The Saints – without the ball
When out of possession, the Saints defended with two banks of four in a 4-4-2 shape. The wide players would often fall back and help the full-backs in doubling up against the opposition wing backs, as you can see in the below picture. If the two players would get beaten, then there would be a central midfielder who would help in getting back the ball.
The Saints made the field as small as possible, forcing the opposition into tight spaces. Then whenever the opposition would attack from the wide channels, their passing options were already restricted, thus the Blades would end up losing possession and the Saints would break forward on a counterattack.
Sheffield United’s shape during possession of the ball would be a 4-2-4. The Blades knew about the Saints’ aggressive nature when out of possession. So, they would look to play long balls to their attackers and tried to create something in such a manner in the final third. This gameplay allowed the Blades to bypass the Saints’ high press and progress up the field quickly, with a lesser risk of losing the ball close to goal.
While defending the wide midfielders remained narrow to main a compact defensive structure, occupying the half-spaces. This allowed to prevent progression from central areas.
The Saints counter-pressed the opposition, as you can see in the above picture. Whenever they conceded possession in the final or middle third, they would press aggressively in numbers. They have players who support the press and are ready to engage and provide cover if the ball is not won like you can see in the above picture.
As we know that the Blades like to play through the wide channels, the Saints could stop the opposition and force turnovers by effectively applying the wide trap. You can see in the above picture that the left-back is supported by the left wide midfielder and the nearest central midfielder would shift across to support the press and cover for his teammates.
However, this could leave the Saints vulnerable to any switches if the Blades could play their way through the press, but they could not.
Southampton’s attacking gameplay
The Saints have a very direct style of play as they like to move in a specific direction by moving the ball forward at a quick pace. We will now have a look at how the Saints made use of this approach in different ways.
The Blades defended in a 5-3-2 shape and shifted from one side to another to cover the wide channels. The Saints changed their shape constantly when they had the ball. One of the common themes they followed to start the build-up play would be to do it in a 3-1 structure where James Ward-Prowse would drop in defence and form a back three with the other two centre-midfielders while Romeu would operate in between United’s first two lines of defence.
This gave the Saints a numerical superiority and allowed them to get through the first line of press by finding Romeu in between the opposition’s two strikers, but the Blades could stop this from happening by asking Ampadu to press Romeu.
The above image shows another common theme they followed during their build-up play. The Saints formed a 2-3 structure in which Bertrand stayed in the same line as Ward-Prowse and Romeu to form a midfield three. The five players would rotate the ball amongst them, hoping to find a player in the wide channels in the middle third to progress the play.
Therefore, United changed their shape to a 4-4-2 while defending in which George Baldock would push up high and wide as a right midfielder and John Fleck would go wide as a left midfielder. This allowed them to have an extra man in order to stop the opposition’s build-up play by going 6 vs 5.
The Saints possess a strong and physical centre-back who has a great tactical view of the game. He has a superb technical ability and not to forget his dribbling, composure, and reading of the game which makes him stand out from other centre-backs in the Premier League. He completed 81 passes in this game at an accuracy of 92.6%.
In this match, the Saints made use of his qualities to break down the opposition’s compact defensive structure. The other defenders and midfielders would move in between the lines in such a way that they can create space for him to advance with the ball or find an attacker in between the lines in the middle or final third by playing a threaded pass as he does in the above picture.
Vestergaard attempted a game-high nine long passes and completed six of them at an accuracy rate of 66%. Far from his normal defensive duties, he was allowed to advance the ball. Thus, he completed only two fewer passes in the opposition’s half than their main playmaker Ward-Prowse, which pretty much sums up his contribution in the game.
Problems for the Blades
Sheffield United prided itself for its defensive solidity in last season, which was also their first year back in the Premier League. This season in 12 matches they have already conceded 21 goals and scored just 5 goals. It has been a tough run for the Blades till now in a compressed season which is already proving unforgiving. Their miserable start to this season continued as they put to the sword by the excellent Saints.
The above image is of the situation when the Blades conceded the first goal in the 34th minute. It was a free kick pinged into the box, and Egan failed to head clearly away. Adams, who freely roamed towards the near post, wrestled and managed to put a scrappy finish past Ramsdale. John Egan was clearly at fault for this goal, as he was not able to deal with this situation.
After a lovely one-two between Stuart Armstrong and Ings, the Southampton talisman set up Armstrong to have a go at the goal from just outside the box. The shot took a sharp deflection of Jagielka’s foot and sent Ramsdale the wrong way as the ball went in at the left bottom corner.
The 38-year-old Jagielka is the oldest outfield player to start a league game for seven years, and it definitely looked that way. There were four defenders in front of Armstrong, and the defenders could not stop him from taking a shot.
The Saints have often struggled to play against a midfield three and United used three players centrally, which was seen as a potential way to stop Saints from playing through the middle.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side could bypass this issue with ease and the key to this was their accurate and crisp passing as they used Vestergaard and Ward-Prowse to play threaded passes from deep and find the attackers.
As you can see in the above picture, it’s a 6 v 6 situation and Ward-Prowse easily plays the ball through the middle and finds Armstrong in between the lines.
The Saints had a player occupying each opposition defender as you can see in the above picture, which increased their chances of winning aerial duels and second balls whenever a long pass was played forward. The Saints’ attackers made a lot of movement and rotations in between the lines, which made it very difficult for the opposition to mark them.
Sheffield United’s winless start to this campaign has extended for a 12th match, leaving them only five points from safety. The Blades have endured their worst start to any Premier League season ever, with only one point till now. From this perilous position, it is hard to say that Sheffield United could make history and buck the trend by not getting relegating this season. It was another game which brought another confidence denting defeat for Chris Wilder’s men, who are still waiting for a first league win of the season. Southampton’s overall play has really improved, as they are playing quality football with and without the ball. They were very effective in creating goal scoring opportunities from different situations and mostly attacked through the middle. Hasenhuttl has really built something here, and the players know what exactly they need to do and when. The club has installed a new identity and you can now see a team full of confidence.