Why two false nines are better than one for Southampton


Southampton toppled Premier League leaders Everton on Sunday in what was one of their most controlled and ruthless performances of the season. The visitors had less of the ball (45 per cent), attempted fewer passes (509 to 610) and were limited to just two shots on target. The in-form Dominic Calvert-Lewin completed just six passes and only managed a single touch in the opposition’s box. 

The win lifted the Saints up to seventh in the table, just three points off the summit, and it extended their unbeaten run to four. It’s been quite the turnaround for Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men who kicked off the season with consecutive defeats.

Key to their climb up the table bas been forward duo Danny Ings and Che Adams. 

The former has four goals and two assists this term while the latter is now on two goals and two assists after netting against Carlo Ancelotti’s side. But unlike many other teams who operate with a two-pronged attack, there’s much more going on at Southampton. 

Southampton average touch map

On paper, Hasenhüttl has his team line up in a 4-4-2 shape but in practice, it’s a 4-2-2-2 system, as evidenced above in the average touch map, similar to the one the Austrian used when he was in charge of RB Leipzig. 

Southampton's shape

When the Red Bull-backed team first appeared in the Bundesliga, they blitzed the opposition with this tactic. Instead of tasking their wide forwards with keeping the width, they allowed both to drift into attacking midfield areas. 

It meant Die Roten Bullen often had four players in central areas and all in close proximity to one another when in possession. As soon as they lost the ball they had players in place to press. This structure also helped with their pressing in general. It clogs up the centre of the pitch and forces the opposition out wide. 

Southampton have replicated this perfectly. 

Opposition Flank Attacks vs Southampton

As shown above, only 23 per cent of the attacks put together by the opposition originate from central areas. The Saints also rank third in the league for PPDA (Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action), per Wyscout. Only Leeds United (9.97) and Liverpool (9.68) allow fewer passes per defensive action. 

This aggressive approach has enabled them to keep three clean sheets in their last four outings in the Premier League. In that period, they’ve scored eight goals and while praise is going the way of Adams and Ings, they wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective without the supporting cast. 

Passes received and movements network for Danny Ings and Che Adams

Southampton’s No.9 and No.10 are able to do what they do because of Nathan Redmond and Stuart Armstong. The graphic above highlights the movements made by Ings and Adams to receive the ball. This sort of movement is usually associated with a sole false nine but like with RB Leipzig when Hasenhüttl had Yussuf Poulsen and Timo Werner, Southampton encourage their strikers to cover the width of the pitch.

They’re given the freedom to influence the game in zones other strikers won’t venture into. The wide forwards are then there to fill the space centrally if required. 

You can see exactly that in the example above. Taken during the win over West Bromwich Albion, Ings and Adams link up down the left side of the pitch and they’re able to do so because Armstrong and Redmond have taken up positions in the area. This move only results in a corner for the hosts. However, it shows how fluid and interchangeable the front four is and goes some way to explaining why they’re so difficult to stop.

It was there for all to see against the Toffees.

When Adams fired home the second against Everton, he’d peeled away to the back post and it was James Ward-Prowse and Stuart Armstrong in the area with Ings the player supplying the cross.

Southampton’s decision to play with what is effectively two false-nines makes them one of the most intriguing sides in England. It also makes them one of the more difficult teams to stop. It’s a risky system but it’s paying off.

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

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