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Premier League 2018/19: Southampton vs Arsenal Tactical Preview

Arsenal are back in Premier League action tomorrow as they head to Southampton. As well as being Unai Emery’s first trip there, it’ll also be new Saints manager Ralph Hasenhuttl’s first home game.

In recent years, St. Mary’s hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Arsenal. In the Premier League, they’ve only won once in their last five visits there. With a tough trip expected, in this tactical analysis, I’ll look at how Arsenal may shape up and how Southampton may play under their new manager.

Arsenal’s defence

Firstly, as much as Arsenal’s frontline has stolen the headlines, their defence is as important. In the club’s now 22-game unbeaten run, Emery has deployed both four-man and three-man defences.

Although the three at the back system hasn’t been used as often, it has looked more promising in creating fluid Arsenal attacks. This is because the wing backs are allowed to bomb forward, knowing that they are being covered.

However, with Rob Holding sidelined for up to six months and Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal only just coming back into the fold, they may not be risked tomorrow. However, with Monreal playing just 20 minutes in midweek, I think if he is used in a back three, we can have more joy against Southampton.

Here’s how effective, the use of wing-backs can be, as seen against Bournemouth a few weeks back.

Southampton Arsenal Premier League Tactical Preview Tactical Analysis
Here, we can see Arsenal’s three at the back system clearly. With an extra man in the middle third of the pitch when in possession, this allows Arsenal’s wing backs to almost play as wingers. Bellerin is positioned high and wide as is Kolasinac, who is out of shot but passed the ball.
Southampton Arsenal Premier League Tactical Preview Tactical Analysis
Here we see the result of having three centre-backs. Kolasinac is afforded bags of space on the left wing which when you look at it, doesn’t seem normal. This makes cutting through Bournemouth that much easier as Alex Iwobi threads the ball in behind to the onrushing Kolasinac.
Southampton Arsenal Premier League Tactical Preview Tactical Analysis
Without much effort, Arsenal are now in behind Bournemouth. Kolasinac can play a simple ball across the box to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who scores the winner for Arsenal.

The space that playing with three centre-backs creates offers great passages of play going forward. It gives defenders that extra man to think about both in midfield and attack which, as we saw above can cause chaos.

In the second image, in particular, we see Bournemouth try to crowd out the middle of the pitch. This is what creates all that space for Kolasinac to exploit which he did.

The new look Southampton

Its early doors for Ralph Hasenhuttl at Southampton, but what can we expect from his side tomorrow? Well, Last weekend against Cardiff, his Southampton looked to dominate possession a lot like when they were climbing the Premier League table a few years back.

This is something they succeeded in with 64% of the ball. They just couldn’t make that possession pay as they ended up losing 1-0. Here’s how Hasenhuttl shaped up in his first full game in charge of Southampton.

Southampton Arsenal Premier League Tactical Preview Tactical Analysis
4-3-1-2 looks to give teams solidarity through the middle of the pitch. With the number of bodies in and around, it should be an extremely hard setup to break down.

However, with Nathan Redmond playing centrally, they do lack the extra pace that may be needed out wide to get in behind teams. But Redmond has played centrally before under Claude Puel and over time may be able to strike up a good partnership with Charlie Austin.

This formation, with the number of players occupying central areas, will also go a long way in Southampton trying to keep hold of the ball. Their midfield three of Pierre Hojberg, Oriol Romeu and Mario Lemina are all fairly comfortable with the ball at their feet which should help. This showed against Cardiff as they played 388 short passes compared to 299 in Mark Hughes’ final match against Manchester United.

Southampton Arsenal Premier League Tactical Preview Tactical Analysis
As you can see above, their most frequently used formations this season are 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2.

So the use of this 4-3-1-2 formation will be quite new to Southampton. As aforementioned, they lack the width that they’d used have but that could turn into a positive should they begin to dominate games more.

Despite this change of shape, Southampton are still quite tame in front of goal. Against Manchester United, 69% of their shots came from outside the box and although this decreased against Cardiff, the percentage was still very high. In Wales, 58% of their shots came from outside the box.

This is a theme that Arsenal must force to continue if they want to leave with St. Mary’s with a win. Especially if they play with three at the back, we believe that could help nullify Southampton’s strikers and keep efforts coming from as far back as possible.

Should Southampton set up similarly narrow tomorrow, this is another reason why we believe Arsenal should set up with three at the back. Rather than concentrating attacks centrally, Emery’s side can exploit the wide areas where there is bound to be space. With Kolasinac hitting decent form, I’d also back him to take the game in his stride should we set up that way.

Southampton’s set pieces

With Hasenhuttl’s side dominating possession in his first game, there was something else that caught the eye. Seven of Southampton’s 12 shots came from set pieces. It can’t be stressed enough how important set pieces, but even more so tomorrow.

Struggling for goals, Southampton’s best chances may come from set pieces yet again so concentration of the highest level is needed. Against Cardiff, they ran a few corner routines that if they have perfected over the week, could hurt Arsenal.

Southampton Arsenal Premier League Tactical Preview Tactical Analysis
Here, despite the clump of three at the edge of the box, Charlie Austin is the main target. This could catch Arsenal off guard as he makes his dart towards the front post. The clump of three then break, with the two taller players heading to the space vacated by Austin. Lemina, the shorter player goes around the back to pick up any scraps.

All four men could end up scoring, which means it is paramount that Arsenal stay switched on in these situations. At first, it may seem that Austin is just making a nuisance of himself but when he makes that dart, he must be followed.


Overall, Arsenal should be going into this game with confidence. However, I feel that if they adopt a three-man defence, this confidence should be even higher. If Southampton try to overload central areas of the pitch, this will give them a great out ball in order to transition from side to side as well as form fluid attacks which could hurt Southampton.

But with the history Arsenal have at Southampton, no one should get too confident. And just remember, Arsenal need to combat Southampton as much as Southampton need to combat Arsenal. With that being said, it’ll be an interesting match-up tomorrow.

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