There are still important things to be decided in the Premier League after Liverpool had secured the title, and the relegation battle is one of those. Southampton visited Watford in what was a game between two teams underneath the mid-table with the Hornets just above the line of relegation, in need of urgent repair with only one win in the last nine games. The Saints, with much more distance from the red zone, were looking to redeem themselves from their previous home defeat against Arsenal in the week.
The game ended up in favour of the Saints, who controlled the first half and took advantage of Watford’s desperation in the second half. In this tactical analysis, we will dive into the tactics used by Ralph Hasenhüttl to beat the defensive low-block used by Nigel Pearson. This analysis would also cover how the Saints shifted their positioning once they were ahead in the score, keeping some aspects of the Austrian coach’s philosophy.
Watford formation was 4-2-3-1, with Ben Foster becoming the oldest players to start a hundred consecutive games in the Premier League. Craig Cathcart replaced Christian Kabasele in last week’s game and continued alongside Craig Dawson for this game as well. Will Hughes and Étienne Capoue remained to be a pair as they have done since the restart of the League. Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck were replaced by Abdoulaye Doucouré and Roberto Pereyra, leaving Troy Deeney alone up top.
Southampton displayed the typical 4-4-2, as Jannik Vestergaard replaced Jack Stephens who was not available due to being suspended, and Kyle Walker-Peters got his second start in the defensive line. In the middle, there were two more changes from the last game with Oriol Romeu and Will Smallbone replacing Stuart Armstrong and the departing Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Up front, the two selected by the Austrian coach were Shane Long and Danny Ings in preference to Michael Obafemi.
Saint’s high press
High pressing is the main tactic that Hasenhüttl had imposed in this team with excellent efficacy. The Saints are recognised by a high-tempo pressing style, which creates a demanding job for rivals to play out from the back. This style is depicted in their stats, being the highest pressing team in the Premier League according to their PPDA stats. The two forwards are the first line of pressing, in conjunction with the second line of three players, with the two wide-midfielders and one of the central-midfielders.
When opposition teams intend to play out from the back, Ings and Long will press in the first instance the centre-backs with the second-line of pressure cutting off the possible forward passes. The Saints’ aggressive style of pressing will force the rivals to play back, which is the trigger to continue their pressing and breaking down their build-up. In the next shot, we can see the two lines of pressure with Ings and Long pressing the centre-backs and goalie, with the support received from the second-line of pressure.
This pressing is not only high from goal-kicks but also when opponents play to their defence – that’s the trigger for the forwards and the midfielders to sprint on a man-marking basis, not allowing the opponents to restart. The Saints strikers are instrumental in this high pressing style, jumping into the goalkeeper by curving their run. They perform these runs so as to cut off the pass to the centre-backs, as shown in the next picture with Ings arriving into the box to force a long ball.
In this way, the Saints controlled the first half of the game, forcing Watford to send long balls looking either for Deeney or Doucouré. The Hornets’ forwards were outnumbered by the Saints centre-backs; furthermore, Doucouré was man-marked by the full-back and the support of one of the defensive midfielders. In this way, those long balls were well defended by the rest-defence of the Saints, recovering the ball at ease and conceding just 0.01 xG in the first half. In the next picture, we can see how the two centre-backs covered Deeney, and the ball was regained by James Ward-Prowse, who was supporting Ryan Bertrand to overload Doucouré.
Hornets low block weaknesses
The Hornets under Pearson use a low-block defensive style, shifting out of possession from their 4-2-3-1 formation into a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, narrowing both wings into the midfield line to create a four-man line in the middle. Pearson’s strategy of overpopulating the defensive half would result in reducing the space available for opponents to play the ball and create danger in their attacking half. In the next picture, we can see this strategy: all the team positioned in their half deploying a 4-4-2 formation, allowing the Saint to keep possession.
This low-block allowed the Saints to control the ball in the first half with 55% possession of the ball. The Hornets’ lack of compactness in the central area gave the Saints penetration options through this dangerous area of the pitch. Without the appropriate compactness, a positional game could outperform numerical superiority. Ings and Long excel in their spatial awareness and off-the-ball movement to create positional superiority in the final third staggered in between the lines. If the defenders should choose to follow out of position, it would leave gaps to be exploited. Moreover, the width provisioned by the wings magnified the positional advantage in stretching the defensive line.
In the next picture, we can see the Hornets’ defending weaknesses. Firstly, we can see the lack of compactness in the midfield-line, as Romeu collected the ball in the left half-space and placed a vertical pass, beating the four-man midfield-line while even having the support of Doucouré.
The second insight we got from this play is the positional advantage gained by the Saints strikers, as Ings dropped deep to give an option to Romeu and was followed by Cathcart who left Long unmarked who ended up receiving the ball and turning to shoot on goal. A similar play gave the Saints the first goal of the game, with Ings receiving the ball in between the lines and having space to turn and shoot on goal.
This low-block used by the Hornets affected their attacking game, with the whole team positioned in their half when they recover the ball, being far away from the opposite goal. The Saints overload in their rest-defense will further reduce the chances of creating chances from balls recovered by the Hornets in their half. The next shot depicts this: we see after Sarr recovered the ball, they have to run a whole half to get into the opposite box, with the Saints defence outnumbering the counter-attack to make it even more difficult.
Saints’ second-half approach
Hasenhüttl‘s style has adapted his tactics to the Premier League with the strategy of using his high-tempo pressing game sporadically throughout the game, depending on the context of the game. Once the Saints were winning, we can see them sitting back and waiting in a low block. This strategy is reflected in the drop of the PPDA on Southampton’s pressing intensity after they score, showing a vast fall after the goal and then increasing it throughout the game.
With the advantage of the first goal, only the Saints strikers were positioned in the opposition’s half with both midfield and defensive lines waiting in their half. In the next picture, only Ings and Long are not in the shot while the midfield line retreated into a compact block, with both lines close together horizontally and vertically. In this way, the Saints only allowed space in the wide channels, gaining a spatial control of the central area through the compactness deployed.
Southampton’s compactness worked brilliantly, only conceding 0.56 xG in the second half. When Watford played the ball between the lines, the Saints traped them with as many players as possible. This defensive overload keeping short distances between the lines gave access to the ball carrier, as shown in the next picture.
Hasenhüttl‘s Philosophy embodied in the low-block
Even though Hasenhüttl has shifted into a sporadically high-tempo style of play, there are phases of the game and attitudes of the players that won’t change from the Austrian’s philosophy no matter the context of the game. Southampton’s primary method of chance creation is their counter-attacks, with the midfield line arriving into the final third to support the strikers, even when defending in a low block. In the next shot, we can see the counter-attack deployed by the Saints with five players arriving in the final third after a sloppy pass from Watford’s goalkeeper, finishing on goal.
The players’ attitude would not be modified by the context too, as their pressing style and aggression inspired by the Austrian’s tactics will suffocate and provoke mistakes in the opponent’s build-up. In the next picture, we can see Ings’ aggressiveness as a lone striker forcing an error in the Hornets’ build-up, recovering the ball in the midfield-line to counter-attack.
The score ended up reflecting the superiority that Southampton had over Watford, controlling the ball in the first half and counter-attacking in the second to win the game with a clear advantage. Ings was the stand-out player on the day with his two goals and assisting the team by pressing and forcing mistakes to recover the ball as soon as possible.
Watford are getting deep into the relegation zone, no longer depending on themselves as they can end up second-last if the others win their games. Visiting Chelsea next makes it a hard fixture for the Hornets who are desperate for some points to get out of that zone and with still plenty to improve if they want to rely on a defensive low-block.