ANALYSING HOW SOUTHAMPTON PRESS
JAIRAM GOPAL | 20th March 2021
Southampton were atop of the Premier League table around November this season. The last time they were at the top of the table was 32 years back in 1988. Thanks to Ralph Hassenhuttl, Southampton have played excellent football and with a set of principles that prove he’s got the minerals to be at the very top of the game.
Sure, the Saints have undergone a severe drop-off since the start of the new year but there are aspects of their game that are impressive to say the least. At the top of that list is their pressing, an underrated facet of their approach which is rarely ever mentioned when giving a shine to their exploits under the ‘Alpine Klopp’.
Let’s delve into this more.
Before we delve into the club’s pressing system and it’s finer details, we need to understand that Ralph Hassenhuttl introduced the 4-2-2-2 formation at his previous club, RB Leipzig where he led the German side to the 2nd position in his first season in the Bundesliga. It is this same formation that has been prevalent in Southampton’s sparkling brand of football.
Simply put, the 4-2-2-2 formation has 4 defenders, 2 central midfielders, 2 wide midfielders that still tuck inside and of course, 2 frontmen. In their own defensive third however, Southampton adopt a traditional 4-4-2 low block in order to prevent the opposition from playing deep and penetrative passes.
The South Coast’s finest build up using 3 players, usually the central defenders in Vestergaard and Bednarek and one full-back. The other full back pushes high as a further attacking option. It is Kyle Walker-Peters who usually takes up this responsibility but in the absence of Walker-Peters, Ryan Bertrand has been utilized as the attacking full-back.
Also one of the forwards, be it Danny Ings or Che Adams drops deep at times to provide a further option in the middle of the pitch. Building up with 3 players means the opposition will need to use more players in order to prevent progression. Thus if Southampton successfully progresses past the first line of pressure, there will be space up field that can be exploited.
Southampton also play lots of long balls from their defensive third. They attempt to win these long balls by taking up positions around the where the long ball is targeted and in these instances, a burly striker like Adams fits the mould perfectly. This not only helps them win second balls but also gives them the chance to set up in their shape in case the opposition wins the ball.
They can be pretty and they also have the Route one styles on lock.
Analyzing the Southampton press
Southampton are a team that give a lot of emphasis to moments of transition. But to refer to them as a ‘high pressing team’ would not be an apt description. This is because Hassenhuttl’s men do not press the opposition in high areas of the pitch unless they lose the ball in those areas.
You rarely see the Saints usually press the opposing center-backs as they maintain their 4-2-2-2 shape and lets the pair play keep the ball.
This peculiar hexagonal shape that Southampton create with their positioning acts as a pressing trap and rigger for them to smother the opposition. The St. Mary’s outfit make sure the opposing defensive-midfielder goes unmarked but make sure that he stays inside the hexagonal shape. A pass to the opposition pivot is a trigger for the Southampton players to press the life out of him and regain possession.
The narrow positioning of Southampton’s wide midfielders creates space for the oppositions full backs to receive the ball. Also Southampton’s full backs do not push high to mark the opposition full backs, instead lets the opposition play the ball to them which Southampton then uses as a trigger to press.
The Southampton fullback and wide midfielder on the ball side attempts to pressurize the opposition fullback in possession while the other Southampton midfielders and forwards cuts off possible options of the opposition player. The forwards cut off passes from the full back to the center backs while the midfielders cuts off passes to the center of the pitch. Thus, rather than a high pressing side Southampton are an efficient pressing team.
Southampton deploy a man-oriented pressing style in which the opposition player in possession is being pressed while the other Saints players occupy a position close to the players around the man with the ball at his feet. The idea is to cut off all passing options while also not being too tight to the opposing players. That positional balance is key.
This positioning creates a dilemma in the opposition player’s mind about whether he should pass the ball and if yes, he must scan his entire area in the midst of a second. And it’s not as simple as some may assume because the Southampton players utilize the time it takes for the ball to move from one player to the other to close down the player receiving the pass. Or the player in possession just wriggles his way out of the situation but that’s the tougher option anyway.
Thus this man-oriented pressing acts as a mechanism to draw risky passes from the opposition which increases their chances of winning the ball.
The hexagonal shape that Southampton use is not just effective in implementing their style of pressing but also acts as a starting point for Southampton’s counter pressing. The hexagonal positioning of the Southampton players makes sure that once they win the ball back, they have adequate depth and width necessary for a good counter pressing situation.
In the above image, Mohammed Salisu wins the ball back after a successful press. The hexagonal shape that Southampton use while pressing gives them the perfect head start to counter press.
Since they have a structured starting point for a counter pressing situation, the time required to adjust positions in order to create the right width and depth is reduced. This in turn makes it harder to defend such a situation.
So this hexagonal shape can be regarded as key to Southampton’s transitions under Hassenhuttl.
Sometimes while watching it in real-time, you may not always clock this but there’s so much more than what meets the eye.