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Match Previews

Ask the Expert: Southampton

12 March 2020

Norwich City host Southampton at Carrow Road on Saturday (3pm KO) for the first Premier League game at Carrow Road since our 1-0 win against Leicester City.

Ahead of the game with Saints, we caught up with The Athletic’s Southampton correspondent, Carl Anka, to get his view on the club’s season so far and this weekend’s match. How would you say the season has gone so far?

CA: It’s been a tale of two halves. At the start of the season, they looked like relegation candidates and they were playing some of the worst football in the league with statistically the worst defence in the league.

You’ve got to bring up that game on October 25th, but I won’t mention the score-line because that’s how bad it was in my memory.

It looked like they were gone and sinking like a rock into the end of the year. Then, the second international break happened and there was a small reboot with a change of formation and style, and Ralph Hasenhüttl really turned things around.

saints team.jpg

There was a little stage where they had a nice unbeaten run and looked like having an outside shot of ending up in the Europa League. That’s not going to happen because what they’ve done now is evened out.

That’s what quite a few fans thought would happen at the start of the season – that they would finish anywhere between ninth and 14th. So, what’s the feeling regarding the manager now? Does it feel like there’s been progress since he came in?

CA: He has a lot of credit in the bank for the turnaround and how Southampton have gone from relegation candidates to fairly safe while using the same bunch of players in a short spell of time.

It’s very interesting because he’s got a very pronounced style; this sort of high-pressing style of football in a 4-2-2-2 system. When it works, it really works. When it doesn’t, there are very pronounced moments of ‘this doesn’t work, why isn’t he changing things?’

The consensus has never been that fans want Ralph gone. I think it’s always been that he’s trying to play a very sophisticated style of football with players that may not be the most talented. Therefore, the challenge is not to get rid of Ralph, but maybe, could he be a bit more pragmatic?

ralph saints.jpg Saints have only had one win in their last five games. Are they looking over their shoulders or do you think they’ll be fine now?

CA: I think they’ll be fine. According to the numbers, they’ve only got a one percent chance of being relegated. The big thing now is that the whole fanbase and the club wants to get to 40 points as soon as possible.

Towards the start of the season, Ralph said he’s not going to discuss contract negotiations or begin to talk about things of that nature until the team reaches 36 points. They’re on 34 now, so a victory over Norwich would take them to 37 and the next phase can begin.

They’ve hoped to get there recently but lost to Newcastle and West Ham, so it’s a case of ‘hurry up, please.’ After this game, they won’t play for two and a half weeks. What do you remember of the last time we met when Southampton won 2-1 at St. Mary’s Stadium?

CA: That was pretty much the beginning of the turnaround. At the time, Southampton had only won one game at home all season, that was the previous one against Watford. At half-time, all the journalists were saying Southampton would be getting relegated, but they nabbed it thanks to a James Ward-Prowse free-kick.

ben v saints.jpg

They played two games in one week, and the Norwich one was quite straightforward. Goals from set-pieces and a bit of sparkle from Ward-Prowse got them over the line. Southampton only have four wins at home all season and one of them was against Norwich. Danny Ings’ form lately hasn’t been quite as strong as it was earlier in the season. Why do you think that might be?

CA: I’m a big person for xG, and the way he was playing football showed that three things could happen to Ings. He was either going to tail off and not score as many goals, because the way he was scoring was phenomenal, or he was going to get an injury, or have an historically good season.

What happened was the likely option, he’s tailed off a bit because he was outperforming his xG a bit by scoring some great shots and the pressing machine isn’t as effective recently as it had been because of a couple of injuries.

Ings can’t do everything. He’s a good striker, but he’s not on Messi’s level, shall we say?

ings v saints.jpg You’ve written about how players have historically passed through Southampton before progressing to another club, but a couple of first-team players – Jack Stephens and Alex McCarthy – have been at the south coast side since 2011 and 2016 respectively – so is that a sign things could be improving?

CA: I think so. Southampton have a very interesting state of finances. There’s like a soft spending cap of £15million on players. If they want to buy someone and get asked to spend more than that, they take a step back and think ‘can we afford this?’

On the other side, they’d like to go back to the more successful model they had three or four years ago where they were bringing in Sadio Mane for a certain amount and selling him off to Liverpool for three times that amount.

That’s not going to happen for a while. When Southampton were bad, I said they were a selling club with nothing really to sell. What’s going to happen now is there will be a nice spell when they’ll just have time to develop players and bring youth prospects in.

They can focus on the football first rather than the business side, so they won’t have to think ‘let’s make this player really good so we can sell them to Borussia Dortmund,’ for example.

stephens alex.jpg A couple of their signings with previous Norwich City experience are Angus Gunn and Nathan Redmond. How are they getting on?

CA: Angus has unfortunately had a difficult season. At the start of the season, as a number one goalkeeper, he wasn’t the best and had the second worst save percentage, just behind Kepa. He obviously played in that game against Leicester as well and hasn’t played in the league since.

He did play in the FA Cup and performed okay but gave away a last-minute penalty against Tottenham Hotspur in the fourth-round replay. He’s not been seen since that game.

Nathan Redmond started the season quite slowly and Ralph publicly mentioned that he wasn’t in a great run of form and needed to step his game up. Around December, he really came alive, got the bit between his teeth and became one of the better players.

Unfortunately, he’s injured and will probably be out for all of March and return in April. Southampton are just less fluent going forward and on counter attacks without him because of his direct running and the way he holds the ball up, which is really important to how they play.

His linkup with Danny Ings is really good as well, so it’s unfortunate timing of the injury.

redmond pre nodge.jpg Will they miss Moussa Djenepo as well, who is unavailable through suspension?

CA: Ralph refers to his wide players as number tens because of the way they pinch slightly inside and work as part of a four-person pressing group.

Stuart Armstrong missed last week’s game because he had a concussion, but he should come in on the right. On the left will most likely be Sofiane Boufal, who is not in a great run of form. His style of play very much revolves on deceleration, so he’s not a counter attacking player who bursts forward.

He drags defenders out of position by making them come towards him, which makes him an odd stylistic fit. If Norwich double up on him, there could be real problems for Southampton going forward on counters. As for Norwich, what are your thoughts on City this season?

CA: I really like them. They play really good football and stylistically I understand what they’re doing. I think Farke is a great manager and I like his sing-song German voice which makes everything sound like an episode of Fargo!

I adore Todd Cantwell and the fact he celebrates four times whenever he scores. Buendia is the best player in the relegation zone and I’ve described him as a bootleg Bernardo Silva because he can play as an eight or a ten or on the wing.

They’ve had a poor time with injuries, so it’s unfortunate, but I think those involved in Norwich have had really sensible planning in the long-term.

You can follow Carl on Twitter @Ankaman616.

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