This was an afternoon of nearly moments. Stylistically, Fulham and Southampton were like oil and water, due to their distinct counter-attacking tactics that thrive out of possession. While Fulham looked dangerous in waves of open play chances, Southampton came closest to score from set-pieces.
Scott Parker’s dynamic catenaccio looked more realised and effective as Fulham went through a tough run of games relatively unscathed. Conversely, injuries to Southampton’s key players have somewhat halted a stellar start for the Saints. Despite it being a fair result, the rather underwhelming 0-0 draw left a lot to be desired.
In this match report, we provide a tactical analysis of the opposing forces in the match. Our analysis includes Fulham’s transition from attack to defence, and Southampton’s manipulation of zones higher up the pitch.
Fulham’s 3-5-2 was the more realised version of what Scott Parker’s team has been trying to achieve over the past couple of weeks. He’s dabbled with a 3-4-1-2 in their loss against Manchester City and 3-4-2-1 in their impressive draw against champions Liverpool.
With Ruben Loftus-Cheek playing a deeper, box-to-box role with Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Fulham aimed to operate through overloads on the flanks. Furthermore, Bobby Decordova-Reid’s structural role for Fulham is dynamic. He tends to play at the right-back, right wing-back and right wing positions, all within the 90 minutes.
Conversely, Southampton’s lineup had some major names missing through injury. Jannik Vestergaard, who has had a solid season offensively and defensively, was replaced by Jack Stephens. Moreover, Ibrahima Diallo made his debut, instead of the ever-important Oriol Romeu, at the heart of midfield. Finally, Shane Long filled in for Danny Ings, alongside Che Adams.
The Saints’ signature 4-4-2 is the blueprint to Ralph Hasenhuttl’s vertical ball progression. It provides them solidity at the back, and permits attacking potential through pressing traps and high-intensity movement.
Fascinatingly, the first half of the match saw the lowest attempts on target so far this season. Ultimately, Fulham recorded one out of 10 attempts on target, as opposed to Southampton’s two out of three. The imbalance between the volume of shots and the quality of chances paints an accurate picture of both teams in front of the goal.
Somewhat surprisingly, Fulham’s expected goals (xG) on the day was 0.9, as compared to Southampton’s 0.1. This implies that the home team slightly underperformed in the final third, despite getting into good positions.
Meanwhile, Southampton’s two goals ruled out for offside by VAR were not recorded in their overall xG. Furthermore, James Ward-Prowse’s free-kick that hit the post was from a position that speaks more about the player’s quality than the statistical evaluation of the shot. Thus, despite feeling like they put on enough pressure to win it in the end, Southampton didn’t create much from open play.
That both teams thrive of off their opponents’ possession can be visualised in the following pass maps.
Both teams shared a reasonably similar distribution of the total number of passes made. However, the types, as well as the positioning of players when a pass was made, can be visibly contrasted between the two teams.
Fulham’s average positions for the same can be starkly divided into players on the left and players on the right. Additionally, the pass links between Ademola Lookman, Antonee Robinson, and Zambo Anguissa indicate that Fulham’s possession chains were being produced and sustained on the left-hand side. In the final third, these pass types were mostly short and medium in nature.
Conversely, all six of Southampton’s non-defender players were positioned in an uncannily vertical position while passing. This is indicative of Hasenhuttl’s system of positional ball progression that focuses on winning second balls. Furthermore, their biggest pass link is between their own centre-backs. Thus, they employed long passes to progress the ball higher up the pitch to potentially trigger pressing traps.
The above can be observed through the Southampton players’ xGChain metric. xGChain measures the expected goals of every possession chain a player was involved in. The Southampton player with the highest xGChain was Shane Long with 0.02. This implies the reliance on quick transitions and individual quality to Southampton’s chances on the day.
Southampton’s vertical play
The formula to Southampton’s attacking style is based on pressing and counter-pressing. This is implemented by focusing on winning second balls. Thus, the Saints don’t care about accurate passes as much as progressing the ball into a general direction. They then aim to control half-spaces around the target area of the ball.
As a result, they play longer passes from the back. Whenever the ball is progressed into the final third, they employ a high tempo to force mistakes from their opposition. Consider the following position.
The above image captures a standard sequence of passes by Hasenhuttl’s team. After a long pass by the goalkeeper, Che Adams wins the second ball, due to a 3 v 2 scenario created by the Southampton players on the right. Stuart Armstrong and Kyle Walker-Peters’ quick combination of two vertical passes allows Adams space on Robinson’s shoulder to cross the ball to Theo Walcott.
The above sequence signifies the extremely high intensity of Southampton, even in possession. Their passes are high-risk, high-reward. Normally, a combination of no more than two or three lateral passes is followed by a forward, probing pass. This explains their overly vertical positioning and, speculatively, why they thrive at set-pieces.
The above set-piece (an indirect free-kick) is played long onto the left-hand side. It is immediately noticeable that Long, Diallo and Ryan Bertrand are positioned to win the second ball. The 3 v 1 they create by surrounding Loftus-Cheek permits this. Subsequently, Bertrand’s rotation with Long enables him to be the target of a vertical pass in Fulham’s penalty area.
It is, therefore, apparent that, in every aspect of the game, Southampton fight for territory, and aim to move higher up the pitch. With 4.51 passes allowed per defensive action, they made it hard for Fulham to sustain possession.
In the above position, the Saints’ press, triggered by Adams, made it extremely difficult for Fulham to consolidate possession. Adams, being the tip of the press, had been particularly instrumental in Southampton’s work rate on and off the ball. Despite being a number nine on the right-hand side, he covered almost all areas of the pitch.
Fulham’s dynamic catenaccio
Unlike their opponents, Fulham rarely press outside of possession. Instead, they look to eliminate spaces by anticipating passes. Their first defensive line is of four, wherein their strikers play a crucial role in blocking passing lanes.
What makes their catenaccio dynamic work is their routine shift of formations when they are in possession. In possession, they switch to a 4-2-3-1 at times. In particular, Decordova-Reid’s box-to-box dynamism allows a numerical overload on the right-hand side. This can be observed in the following position.
Decordova-Reid’s presence in the first half of the possession chain, in conjunction with Ivan Cavaleiro dropping deep, facilitated Fulham to string a sequence of passes on the right. The extra white shirt bypassed Southampton’s second and third waves of pressing, allowing Fulham to arrive at the following position.
The above frame is the final phase of Fulham’s possession chain. They were able to withstand Southampton’s vigorous press, resulting in free spaces behind their defensive line.
Consequently, Cavaleiro’s cross found Lookman, whose pass to Zambo Anguissa was a goal-creating action. Though the Cameroonian’s subsequent miskick was on his weaker foot, the chance demonstrated Fulham’s underrated dynamism moving forward.
Despite being wasteful in front of goal, the home team’s complex system showed multi-faceted dimensions to their game. For instance, in the following position, they managed to soak in a dangerous situation from Southampton and initiate a swift counter-attack of their own.
In the above position, Lookman safely held the ball long enough for Robinson to get forward on the overlap. Considering the body positioning of the Southampton defenders, Robinson’s inch-perfect cross to Cavaleiro completely exposed the Saints’ defence.
Moreover, Bertrand was not on time to arrive back in his position. This granted Cavaleiro a free header on the shoulder to Stephens.
While the home team wasn’t able to make much of it, it may be argued that they deserved to win. Fulham could defend deep, and looked threatening in possession, as well as in transitions.
A goalless draw in the Premier League on Boxing Day is understandably less than ideal for neutral fans. However, both teams will take positives from the game, through the belief that they could have won it.
The most positive attribute of Southampton this season has been their ability to get points even amidst injuries and plateaus of form. Hasenhuttl will communicate that a draw is not a loss to his team, as he looks to have some of his major players back from injury. It is still unclear to accurately predict what Southampton’s ambitions should be moving forward, though.
On the other hand, Fulham have convinced many analysts that they have what it takes to stay up this season. While they look quite capable in a variety of areas, being clinical in front of goal is the one that really matters. Their approach to playing sides in the bottom half of the table will be interesting and, ultimately, crucial in this pursuit.