Southampton’s promising tactical plans clouded by naivety
It was fitting that, in Nottingham of all places, Southampton continued its best impersonation of Robin Hood. Taking off the rich and giving to the poorer.
Clinging on for their lives, Nottingham Forest will be thankful to Southampton for eating the cheese they put in the trap. In a season fraught with quirks and damning new-found nadirs, Southampton are unbeaten against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Arsenal under Ruben Selles, yet have hatched their own defeats to five of the bottom eight. The 4-3 loss at Forest stretches Southampton’s winless run to 10 games; surely the most terrible time to have their worst run of form since 2018.
Selles’ press conferences have begun to foreshadow games. Both against Bournemouth and here, Selles correctly identified the opposition’s threat, before watching his words and worst fears crystallise days later. On Friday, Selles spoke about needing to break down Forest’s mid-to-low block while being mindful of the space left on transition. This involved rotations, coaxing players out of position and ensuring Southampton’s rest defence was correct.
Maitland-Niles (3) moved inside when Southampton had possession, with Armstrong (17) providing width
Ainsley Maitland-Niles, as it turned out, held the keys in and out of possession. For the first time this season, the 25-year-old played at left-back, switching positions with Kyle Walker-Peters.
The purpose of this, as Selles explained afterwards, was for Maitland-Niles to use his schooling as a central midfielder to encourage greater rotations ahead of him and, in turn, be able to play through Forest’s deeper lines.
The Arsenal loanee would take up inverted positions in central midfield, open up passing lanes and push the two No 8s — James Ward-Prowse and Carlos Alcaraz — further up the pitch. Stuart Armstrong held width on the left side, meaning Southampton’s stale and ailing 4-2-2-2 system was exchanged for a more expansive 4-3-3.
With Maitland-Niles sitting at the base of midfield alongside Romeo Lavia, Ward-Prowse and Alcaraz were handed greater attacking licence, often dragging Forest’s midfield pairing, Ryan Yates and Orel Mangala, onto the same line as their back four.
“We can make the variation as we did with Ainsley moving from outside to inside in the first half to give a space for Armstrong and the different runs from Che (Adams) and Carlos,” said Selles.
Here, as Selles wanted, Armstrong drops deeper and takes his first touch inside, prompting Adams to make an in-to-out run and get behind Forest’s defence.
Selles’ tactical schemes had given Southampton a stable footing and could gauge success by how many times Forest’s mid-block would get played through. In the first 13 minutes, Southampton had made 25 passes into the final third compared to Forest’s five. Ball progression, largely due to better rotations and newly discovered passing lanes, was, for once, not the perpetual weakness.
A consequence of Maitland-Niles’ inverted positioning meant he would always be goalside of Brennan Johnson — Forest’s quickest and key weapon on transition — providing he remained disciplined. Selles said the left-back’s job was “to close those gaps in case of the counter-attacks,” tucking in and tight alongside Armel Bella-Kotchap.
Even if the broader tactical plan appeared to be going smoothly, combustion is inherent at Southampton.
Taiwo Awoniyi’s first goal came from a free-kick, deep inside Forest’s half, which was taken quickly. A withdrawal from performing what managers describe as the “basics”, resulted in the short free-kick taking three Southampton players out of the game. However minor or overlooked they may seem in the grander backdrop of relegation, it is those “details”, as Selles put it, that will have contributed to spending next season in the Championship.
Selles knew Forest’s biggest threat was on transition. He told his players before, during and, in all likelihood, after the game. After the quick free-kick, the next pass was played over Maitland-Niles, with Johnson squaring for Awoniyi to score.
The goal itself highlighted why those types of fractional gains and losses have caused all three of Southampton’s managers to blame fine margins this season.
On the only occasion when Maitland-Niles did venture forward, Southampton were caught out on the break, with Johnson left one-on-one with Bella-Kotchap.
Gradually, the benefits Maitland-Niles had initially offered became damaging. As is the case with Southampton’s players and coaches, they did not move quickly enough to rectify the danger.
Alcaraz offered Southampton a lifeline before it was all swiped away – quite literally – when Maitland-Niles, attempting to clear inside his box, was blindsided by Johnson and conceded a penalty.
Southampton put in their most multi-faceted, free-flowing attacking display for a long time, perhaps their best under Selles. They scored three goals, registered 64 per cent possession and had 19 shot attempts.
The 4-3-3 shape was made more fluid through Maitland-Niles’ positioning, which, albeit fleetingly, demonstrated promise and tactical nuance. But yet, it was his display that embodied Southampton’s broader naivety.
Plainly, tactical instructions and set-ups are futile if a team, proven ample times this season, cannot perform the fundamentals or avoid what everyone saw coming days before. In all three games Southampton have scored three goals in, they have failed to win.
“We knew,” said Selles. “We need to be better in those details because we knew that situations like counter-attacks for the first goal were coming.
“The last action in the first half was a penalty in a situation where we need to defend better. Then it’s always difficult.”
At full-time, Maitland-Niles joined Jan Bednarek in applauding the away support. They kept their distance as fans expressed contrition and anger, polarising emotions that only relegation can bring. Team-mates stood motionless and limp, hands on hips with the now customary thousand-yard stare. Not a word was uttered between them. It appeared an image of acceptance.
(Top photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)