Everton return to action this weekend, following the international break with a visit to the south coast. Saint Mary’s Stadium has not been a happy hunting ground for the Toffees in recent years, with the visitors securing only one win at Southampton from their last five attempts, set against four losses. In fact, the Merseysiders have won only twice at the ground since it opened back in 2001, a statistic which makes for grim reading.
At least the team heads into this game with spirits high, fresh from obtaining their first Premier League victory, against West Ham United at Goodison Park a couple of weeks ago. In truth, that win had been coming and was definitely overdue considering how solidly the team had been performing. On paper, the Saints are considerably less formidable adversaries than the Hammers were, notwithstanding that they’ll have home advantage.
So, what will the travelling Blues be up against in Saturday’s traditional three PM (local time) kickoff? Let’s take a look at the Saints.
If Everton endured a terrible campaign last time out, then Southampton fared little better, considering they ended up with just one more point and finished in 15th spot. That they were generally not considered to be in the battle against relegation was down to their solid form up the end of February, which saw them comfortably mid-table. From March, however results nosedived, as they managed only a single victory and two draws from their last 12 games. In four of those nine defeats, the Saints were beaten by at least a three-goal margin, including shipping four against both Aston Villa and Leicester City, and six to Chelsea.
That the team struggled last season was not entirely unpredictable, as their net transfer spend was plus £15.5m. Also, major summer signing, Adam Armstrong failed to live up to the standards of exiting striker Danny Ings, despite starting off his Saints tenure with a goal against.. Everton of course.
This season, there’s been a marked difference in approach from the decision-makers at Saint Mary’s. Ten players have been brought in; six between the ages of 18 and 20. Remarkably, Southampton have extensively raided the Manchester City youth system, acquiring four players, courtesy of their newly-appointed head of recruitment Joe Shields, himself the former head of academy recruitment at City.
So far, results have been mixed, though this could be expected with a fairly young squad. Kicking off the campaign with a 4-1 away defeat to a powerful Tottenham Hotspur outfit is no disgrace, though they were fortunate to come back from a two-goal deficit against Leeds United to snatch a home draw. Victories against clubs in turmoil, Leicester City and Chelsea were sandwiched around a loss to a resurgent Manchester United. The side comes into the weekend’s match off of consecutive losses, to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Villa, the latter a desultory affair.
Style of Play
Entering his fourth full season as Southampton manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl is now an experienced operator in the world of Premier League football. An advocate of the Gegenpressing approach, his side attempts to actively win back possession as early as possible, in order to create dangerous attacking situation deep in the opposition third of the pitch. Accordingly, this relies heavily on player fitness and the side being well-drilled, in order to press in a systematic, coordinated fashion.
Hasenhüttl is not dogmatic regarding formations. He implemented the classic “Red Bull” 4-2-2-2 when at RB Leipzig, but has moved away from this during his time in England. At Southampton, he’s flipped around quite a bit, searching for the best fit for the players he has available. Last season, the Saints played mostly 4-4-2, though they lined up in a back three on seven occasions. This term, the side played three-at-the-back for the opening two matches, but have stuck with a 4-2-3-1 since.
A concern will be a lack of quality finishing evident from the campaign’s early stages: although the team have racked up an Expected Goals (xG) total of 10.5 from seven league matches, they’ve only actually scored seven. Defensively, they are limiting opponents quite successfully, as evidenced by an Expected Goals Allowed (xGA) of 7.7; however they have shipped eleven goals. It’s probably too early to draw anything definitive from these statistics, except that’s it’s suggestive that the side lacks clinical attackers and that their promising young goalkeeper - Gavin Bazunu - is finding the step up to Premier League level a tough adjustment, having previously played no higher than League One standard.
Jumping out from the stats is that Southampton have conceded four times from set-piece situations, whilst scoring two themselves. They are balanced in their play, not favouring either flank or central positions particularly. In terms of progression, they are one of the league’s more direct sides, with 16.3% of their passes going long (Everton sit at 17.2%); this is probably a combination of philosophy - attempting to capitalize on turning the ball over, whilst doing so often from deeper positions in their own half than would be the case with other proponents of Gegenpressing, such as Liverpool. Southampton have not enjoyed an advantage in possession in any league match so far this campaign.
Key man is James Ward-Prowse. The 27-year old has been a top performer for many years and a regular source of goals from midfield, typically from free kicks, at which he is particularly adept. He’s scored 30 Premier League goals over the past four completed campaigns and hit an impressive ten last season. The Saints captain is also a important chance creator, generating an xG Assisted (xA) per 90 minutes played of 0.16.
Southampton’s major goal threat is probably rumoured Everton summer target Che Adams, who has scored twice this term and has an xG per 90 minutes of 0.22. The Scotland international is a bit of an all-rounder, possessing athleticism and able to contribute to general play, though is not a clinical finisher.
Anchoring the Saints defence is Mohammed Salisu, who is winning almost 70% of his aerial duels. The 23-year old Ghanaian is rated between the 80th and 97th percentile in all defensive categories across the major five European leagues.
It appears that Everton may once again be without the services of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, in addition to the definitely injured Nathan Patterson, though Jordan Pickford has returned earlier than anticipated in what is a major boost to the side. Southampton are a work in progress, following a major overhaul last summer. Additionally, they are a side that very much relies on being close to 100% in terms of application and energy levels; when they fall below these levels, they can be quite easy to play through.
Everton have to match the tempo of the hosts and so far the signs are encouraging this season that they will be capable of doing so. Moreover, the visitors have been consistent in their play, not falling apart as they did in this fixture last term after a bright start. The Blues have been threatening on set-pieces and the Saints have shown vulnerability in defending these situations, with their young goalkeeper and team that is still gelling.
Without the services of the impressive Patterson, the Toffees will have to rely on club captain Seamus Coleman, who will be making a first league start this season. The Irishman is not the player of former years, but can likely still do a solid job in spot duty. Lacking a threat from fullback positions, Frank Lampard will rely on a mobile front three and Alex Iwobi’s creative threat. The team has demonstrated admirable solidity and esprit de corps to start the campaign and this should see them through to at least a draw, which would maintain their unbeaten run further.