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Thom Ollig writes a detailed tactical analysis about the FA cup match that ended Southampton 0-5 Arsenal.
Southampton with their third game within a week, welcomed Arsenal to St Mary’s Stadium. Many expected a hard fixture for Arsenal against a Southampton with three wins in a row and zero goals conceded, including teams like Liverpool and Leicester. The odds didn’t really get better for Arsenal as Wenger received a suspension, which would force him to watch Arsenal from the stand for the next four games. A decision many expected to be tough and affect Arsenal’s mentality, to say the least.
On the other hand, as mentioned it was the third game within a week for Southampton. This fact in connection with their fixture on Tuesday against Swansea, made Claude Puel rest his key players with Höjbjerg and Long being the only remainders of the standard first eleven of Southampton.
Southampton (4-3-3): 41. Lewis – 15. Martina 5. Gardos 24. Stephens 38. MqQueen – 23. Höjbjerg 18. Reed 4. Clasie – 39. Sims 27. Isgrove – 7. Long
Arsenal (4-3-3): 13. Ospina – 24. Bellerin 20. Mustafi 16. Holding 3. Gibbs – 55. Maitland-Niles 15. Chamberlain 31. Adelaide – 14. Walcott 23. Welbeck – 9. Perez
Southampton: Isgrove → Tadic (64), Long → Redmond (64).
Arsenal: Welbeck → Sánchez (64), Adelaide → Iwobi (72).
Both teams formed a 4-3-3 with similar playing-styles. They both pressed up high and pressed aggressively against their opponents in similar shapes, and wanted to find passing combinations through the halfspaces and play “nice” football. The difference in this game though, was the workrate between both teams and the structure between their positioning.
Southampton started this game very gently, with a backline that didn’t push up that much, due to the fact that Arsenal had very fast players in Welbeck and Walcott who always laid prepared for the counter. This though, didn’t stop the rest of the Southampton team from pushing up high and trying to find space between the lines of Arsenal’s defence. This proved to be very bad for Southampton for two reasons. First of all it created space between the lines of Southampton, which made it easier for Arsenal to penetrate half spaces and hit on the counter.
Southampton’s offensive-oriented players may though, have thought that their balance player in Harrison Reed, among with their back line and the defensive-oriented wingbacks, would be enough support to the backline between the midfield and defence, and they obviously felt more comfortable with Reed behind them, as they constantly searched high up the pitch and made vertical runs through the midfield. Walcott and Welbeck wandered into these spaces continuously throughout the game.
Second of all the wingbacks of Southampton didn’t give enough support to the wingers, which made it harder for the Southampton wingers to get into the halfspaces, as they needed to take the wingbacks’ standard attacking positions and stay wide. This made it easy for Arsenal to stay compact horizontally when the wingers tried to penetrate through the half spaces.
Here below is an image of the space between the lines as Southampton’s centre backs didn’t follow their midfield up the pitch.
Although Southampton’s central midfielders obviously shouldn’t have pressed that high up the pitch, this could have worked, if it weren’t for the workrate of their team. As mentioned, this was Southampton’s third game within a week, and even though the Southern club rested a lot of their first team players, the weariness caused by the tight winter schedule was visible, to say the least. With this said, the biggest reason for Arsenal’s counter opportunities was the fact that the players were standing on their heels. Claude Puel confirmed this after the game, as the Frenchman said he wouldn’t have changed his game plan although they lost five zero.
Southampton in their defending shape 4-5-1, with only Long up top, had only one way to counter against Arsenal, and that was with runs by Long behind the backline. This obviously wasn’t enough, and Arsenal’s fast centre backs in combination with their pressing, were easily able to avoid most such attempts without feeling especially threatened. Long was to isolated up top against Arsenal’s centre backs and even the times he got the ball, he didn’t get the support he was in need of.
Below is an image of what Southampton’s counter-options looked like
As mentioned, the wingers positioning was too wide or deep, and this too isolated Long, even when Southampton pushed forward with the ball under control. With that said the wingbacks’ lack of support didn’t just affect the wingers, but also Long himself as they weren’t able to support him and make horizontal runs into the halfspaces.
Southampton started, as mentioned in the beginning of the analysis, the game gently, where they didn’t push up their team that high the pitch. Things obviously changed though after the goals, which forced them to set up a greater pressure against Arsenal in the build up phase, which they did for instance by pushing up their team. When then the midfield along with Long did so, they forced the backline to choose between letting go of the space behind the midfield (as mentioned), or letting go of the space behind the backline, which was a very risky move, since Arsenal had very fast players to use in counter attacks, while Southampton in Gardos and Stephens didn’t have the quickest. For the first half of the game, and sometimes even in the second half, the centre backs were very unsure about how to deal with this situation, as they varied their moves constantly. This proved costly to Southampton as evidenced by their second and fifth goal conceded.
Below is an example of what this looked like in Arsenal’s second goal
The fact that the Southampton-players were standing on their heels, in combination with the way Arsenal continuously opened horizontal spaces with their wingbacks, caused Southampton to concede their first goal. This goal, along with Long’s isolation up top, forced Southampton to try and pull off a more intense pressing game and lowered their morale, which allowed Welbeck to score Arsenal’s second of the game. After Arsenal’s second and the lack of successful tactical changes, the players lost motivation and soon found themselves three goals down, which made it easy for Arsenal to outplay Southampton not only first half but also the second half by just sitting back and using their great counter attacking players, like Walcott and Welbeck. With this said, Southampton found themselves in a vicious circle hard to get out of, which resulted in five goals conceded.
A game many expected to be very hard for Arsenal, with Wenger’s suspension along with Southampton’s great form, proved instead to be their biggest and most dominant victory so far this year.
One thing that is clear is that the tight winter schedule didn’t make it easy for Southampton going into this game, as first their tactical preparations didn’t seem to be organised at all, and their players seemed to be very worn.
Wenger, despite his suspension, is probably very delighted with how things stand, as Arsenal are in a good league spot and got to witness great performances from players like Welbeck, and the youngsters Niles and Adelaide, who definitely took big steps towards more regular playing time in Arsenal’s first team.
Southampton on the other hand, shouldn’t allow this embarrassing defeat to deplete their morale too much, since they at least prioritized the right game, the semi final against Liverpool which will send them all the way to the final of the League cup.
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