Southampton host West Ham in a bottom of the table clash at St Mary’s on Saturday evening, and the Saints will be keen to pile the misery on Hammers boss Mauricio Pellegrini, amidst rumours he must win to save his job.
Southampton have seen an upturn in form in recent weeks, but suffered a setback on Tyneside as Steve Bruce’s Newcastle stole a 2-1 victory as the Saints wasted plenty of opportunities to take the three points themselves. Danny Ings made it five goals in consecutive games, however Southampton still find themselves in the relegation zone, and will be keen for a victory to lift them out of the drop and above West Ham,
West Ham travel to the South Coast with only one victory in their last ten Premier League games, and that was a smash and grab win over Chelsea, where they rode their luck for long periods before Aaron Cresswell’s winner. Worrying defensive issues, highlighted by xGa of 32.43, have caught up in Pellegrini’s side, whilst creating chances has become an issue, compounded by Manuel Lanzini’s injury and Felipe Anderson and Pablo Fornals struggling for form. Defeat would surely see the end of the Argentine’s reign in London, and could see them drop into the bottom three.
Southampton’s upturn in form and creativity has coincided with a run of easier fixtures, as well as a switch back to the 4-2-2-2 formation that Hasenhuttl favoured in the early part of the season. This has seen his side exert greater control of possession in games, with a balanced midfield pairing of James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg dictating the play, and seeing the Saints’ possession statistics increase. Declan Rice and Mark Noble will be given the job of keeping the Southampton midfield quiet, and sets up an interesting battle in the centre of the pitch.
West Ham initially sat deep against Arsenal, allowing the centre backs plenty of possession before pressing the two central midfielders and it would be no surprise to see them opt to the same, and try hit Southampton on the counter. Arsenal lacked pace in moving the ball, this resulted in the attackers becoming isolated, and with Southampton opting for two up top, it would be expected that West Ham will try a similar pattern of play once again.
This, as a result, increases the pressure on Southampton to play with a quick tempo and open up West Ham, something Arsenal in particular struggled to do until hitting West Ham on the counter themselves. Once again, this role will fall to the central midfielders, whilst wingers Moussa Djenepo and Nathan Redmond’s pace and willingness to run at defences will be key to opening up the West Ham defence.
Southampton look to exploit the flanks, and the 4-2-2-2 formation allows them to do so, particularly relying on crosses from wide areas to create chances. The overlapping full backs look to press on beyond the wingers, and this creates overloads in the wide areas. This is certainly an area that Southampton will look to target West Ham with on Saturday, and they have shown a vulnerability to crosses in recent weeks, particular in defeat at Burnley, whilst Chelsea had a lot of joy in these areas, without taking the chances they created. With his excellent crossing ability, it could see James Ward-Prowse drift wide and help create chances in these avenues, as well as drifting away from the Hammer’s defensive midfielder Declan Rice, who is key to bypassing for Saints chances.
Arsenal were able expose this weakness for their opener on Monday, and this highlights another problem which West Ham currently have, with a vulnerability to the counter attack, driven by the less-than-convincing defensive performances from their wingers. Sead Kolasanic’s overlapping run caught out Robert Snodgrass, and this allowed Gabriel Martinelli to drift inside for the opener, and a similar approach from Southampton would not be a surprise, and this is certainly an area to watch out for.
It was after Aaron Cresswell went off injured that West Ham’s grip on the game began to fall, as Ivorian winger Nicholas Pepe was able to isolate Arthur Masuaku, and his 1v1 defending fell into question up against the tricky forward. A more reserved full back in Ainsley Maitland-Niles meant Cresswell dealt comfortably with the forward in the first half, however his injury meant Pepe could exploit this weakness, particularly on the break as space opened up. Djenepo and Redmond will be relishing their chances against the Hammers’ full backs, and this opens up an avenue of potential weakness, especially if Southampton are able to overload the wings. It could see Southampton create a plentiful of chances against an otherwise weak backline, and with the in-form Ings on hand, goals could be coming for the Saints.
Michail Antonio struggled up front for West Ham against Arsenal, and once again cut an isolated figure as West Ham’s best chances came as a result of pressing high and forcing mistakes from the Arsenal backline. Winning only 4 of his 12 aerial duals, it would be no surprise to see Sebastien Haller return to the starting line-up, as they try and give Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens a torrid time in defence. Haller’s aerial threat cannot be underestimated, and the Frenchman is averaging 7.01 aerial duels won per 90.
This could see Antonio shifted out wide to offer a two-pronged aerial attack, and whilst his defensive contribution would be a step up on that of Pablo Fornals, it would also allow West Ham to isolate one of the weaker aerial options at full back of Bertrand. It would help the alleviate some of the worries creatively without Lanzini, and allow Felipe Anderson a free role in the central, and this is an area worth keeping an eye on regarding the direct play of West Ham.
The high Southampton backline will make them susceptible to breaks from West Ham, and Anderson showed in this exact fixture last year just how threatening he can be when this is used effectively. If Haller or Antonio can dominate the two centre backs, it will bring into play the Brazilian forward. Low on confidence, he has the third highest individual xG without a goal, but is extremely well suited to playing against this high line and overlapping wingers. If given a free role, he should be able to move into the channels and cause problems, and it does strike as the perfect game for him to end his goalscoring drought.
There is a feeling of vulnerability to both sides defensively coming into this game, and it feels like it could be another high scoring affair on the South Coast. Southampton will still be full of confidence after their back to back victories over Watford and Norwich, despite the setback against Newcastle last weekend. Their xG since a draw with Arsenal has averaged 2.12, and they come up against a defence leaking goals, and with a worrying xGa of 32.43. Susceptibility to crosses, one of Southampton’s main areas of threat, has become a theme, so it is hard to see Hasenhuttl’s side not scoring.
However, I do think for the tactical reasons posed, West Ham do offer a threat going forward, although it may require a tactical tweak to allow Anderson to shine. I am happy to take a gamble on this occurring, and with the two leaky defences on display, Over 2.5 goals and both teams to score appeals at 10/11 (WilliamHill).
As alluded to earlier, the game could suit Anderson with Southampton’s high line, and linking the counter attack to the midfield will be key to getting the best out of the midfielder. Unfortunately, at time of writing, the individual player markets on statistical betting haven’t been priced, nor the referee selected, so tapping into those markets at an early stage is non-starter. As a result, I can’t ignore the big price on Anderson to score anytime at 6.0 (Betfair), despite his barren run in front of goal. Hoping for the tactical tweak from Pellegrini, it should see him extremely well suited against a Southampton backline, and as Ismail Sarr was able to race through for Watford and net their opener, I could see Anderson having similar joy on Saturday evening.