Southampton’s 2-1 win over Leicester on Saturday completed a remarkable turnaround from their last encounter: maybe it wasn’t the best idea to be so hubristic…
The cover splashed ‘Record Breakers’ over Jamie Vardy and Ayoze Perez’s grinning faces. It felt oddly hubristic for Leicester to be selling DVD’s of their 9-0 victory over Southampton earlier in the season. One doesn’t have to do much to invoke the footballing gods, particularly against a team nicknamed the Saints, and showing all nine goals before kick off was unlikely to succeed in much more than riling up the Southampton squad.
When Leicester counter-attacked early in the game and Dennis Praet tucked home from Jamie Vardy’s cross, you could be forgiven for thinking that Leicester were going to assert their dominance once again. But this was a different Southampton side to the one that lost back in October. They equalised within five minutes thanks to Stuart Armstrong’s strike deflecting off of James Maddison and from then on it looked like a match between equals.
Southampton showed how much has changed since that night. Ralph Hasenhuttl has moved away from the 3-5-2 that was so easily dispatched by Leicester into a 4-4-2 that can switch into a 4-2-2-2. It is a change that has prompted six wins in 10 games (of which they’ve only lost two), giving them more attacking flair and more defensive support. Their 4-4-2 formation has given them an xG of 1.89 and an xGA of 0.79: that’s comfortably better than with any other formation.
Their ability to attack better in this formation was demonstrated when they took advantage of Unai Emery’s last Premier League game in charge at Arsenal in a 2-2 draw. The Gunners’ defence were easily pressed into mistakes with Danny Ings and Michael Obafemi who seemed to have more freedom going forward, and Southampton managed 21 attempts on goal. They only had 13 in total in their three previous games against Leicester, Manchester City and Everton.
The introduction of Jack Stephens into Hasenhuttl’s back line has also seemed to shore up the defence. The 25-year-old started the opening day 3-0 loss to Burnley but didn’t start again until the Manchester City loss following the Leicester 9-0. In the six games he didn’t start, Southampton conceded 18, but in the 13 games since they have only let in 17. Looking at the statistics, part of his ability in defence comes from blocking shots – he averages 0.9 a game, more than any of his other central defensive partners in the Southampton back line. He also averages 1.4 tackles a game – much higher than the man he replaced, Jannik Vestegaard, who averaged 0.9 at the start of the season.
The 4-4-2 also allows James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to protect the back line when they need to. They have made 54 and 53 tackles respectively this season, the most at the club, and Ward-Prowse has been able to use his defensive skills to dictate the midfield against tougher opposition. In Southampton’s victories over Chelsea and Tottenham, he made nine tackles, making sure that his team would not be overrun. The difference between the two Chelsea games in particular is stark. In their 4-1 home loss, before the formation change, Southampton allowed Chelsea to have seven shots on target. In their 2-0 away win after, it was only three.
Spearheading the turnaround has been Ings, who has turned into Southampton’s homegrown hero. He hasn’t had as high-scoring a season since his last with Burnley in the Championship, and it feels like he is finally making the impact on the Premier League that he was expected to before his injury-blighted time at Liverpool. With ten goals now scored in his past ten games, Southampton have found what any lower table side desires: a poacher in front of goal. Ings has the ability to take nothing and turn it into something, as demonstrated by his xG for those most recent 10 goals being just 6.4. His form has come exactly when Southampton have needed it most, and they will be hoping that he can continue to defy the data for the rest of the season.
Back at the King Power Stadium, Southampton were profligate enough to squander their chances as Ings hit the bar twice before finally tucking home the winner in the 81st minute. In his post-match comments, Ralph Hasenhuttl said: “We didn’t want to have revenge, we wanted an answer for ourselves and to show how far we are compared to the clash”. In this case, Southampton did both.
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