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Southampton match is a battle of the best of the rest

Saints and Toffees still lingering behind the top six

Southampton v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

With a quick turnaround this week I didn’t have the time for too much in-depth analysis, but here are a few thoughts ahead of Monday’s match:

Southampton are still Everton’s closest competitors, but performances suggest they are peeling away

I’ve mentioned before how for most of the season, underlying numbers paint a picture wherein the Saints and Toffees are roughly as good as each other, chipping away at the big boys but not quite able to break through. That picture is sort of still the same, but if anything Southampton have pulled away from Everton a bit. The table won’t tell you this—at the time of writing, Everton are 3 points ahead and Soton lost 2-1 at home to West Brom—but two factors suggest that it’s the Saints and not Everton that are the league’s 7th best team.

The first is that over the last month Southampton have strung together a few solid performances whereas Everton have been all over the place. Starting with their meeting on November 27, Soton are averaging about 1.3 expected goals for, 0.9 against and Everton are running at about 1.1 for, 1.3 against over the same period. This means that the season-long gap between the two is widening:

The Saints are still languishing in the table mostly because they cannot catch a break with finishing at either end. Their underperformance (results compared with actual chance creation/prevention) is unmatched in the league:

As Paul Riley pointed out recently, the Saints are the worst team in the Premier League at saving shots on target that they face and the worst team in the Premier League at scoring the shots on target that they have themselves. Generally speaking this is regarded as mostly to due with luck—analysis shows that “finishing” is not repeatable in the long-term and is prone to factors largely out of the control of the players themselves (Messi notwithstanding). I say “generally speaking” here though because it’s always possible to dig deeper.

Riley has done so with regards to the defensive side, specifically taking a look at Fraser Forster. The results are worth a read and worth looking at during the game (I couldn’t help but think about them again as I watched Forster get beat by Robson-Kanu at the near post a few minutes ago). With more time I could dig into the attacking side, but for now suffice to say that Southampton are creating more chances than their goal tally would indicate—way more, in fact (7th in xG, 16th in goals).

Saints beat Everton handily a month ago

The second thing that suggests that Southampton have an edge over the Toffees is the simple fact that when they met at the end of November, the result was 1-0 but the game wasn’t really that close:

Much of what I wrote in the preview for that match still holds on the Southampton side: a 4-3-3 with a very solid midfield and plenty of lateral movement up front. Their defense remains among the best in the league (3rd in xG against), and they held Everton to just 1 shot on target—only Liverpool have been able to do that as well.

Everton in general were a mess in that game—tons of lateral passing with no meaningful links to the attackers. This is essentially what Southampton’s midfield can do to you, and it’s unclear what adjustments Koeman will make to prevent the same from happening again. Hope comes in the form of Everton’s approach, if not result, against Hull:

I was really impressed with Idrissa Gueye and to a lesser extent Ross Barkley’s conscious effort to play passes into advanced, central areas, the very areas that Everton have had tons of difficulty penetrating all season. Granted, Hull do not put up much of a fight, but hopefully the Toffees can keep it up against better opposition.

How tired will these teams be?

The holiday period is always a crazy one, but Southampton kind of got screwed this year:

Claude Puel and Ronald Koeman have rotated their squads to some extent, with Puel doing it more so, as you’d expect. Here are their lineups for the last two games, with the “typical” being based on minutes played thus far this season, and players who have played the last two games in a row highlighted in orange.

Two of Saints’ midfield three will have little rest, and it will be interesting to see if Puel rotates out Virgil van Dijk, their best center back. On the Everton side, Koeman has been riding Gueye and Romelu Lukaku hard this season, probably because neither is really replaceable at this point. With Gana due to depart for the African Cup of Nations after this game, one wonders if Koeman will try to squeeze what he can out of him while he is able.

Saints should in theory be more tired but Puel has been rotating more, so Koeman probably has more decisions to make than his counterpart.