St. Mary’s Stadium will play host to Watford F.C. as Southampton look to start the season off with a bang.
After a seemingly-endless summer, the wait is nearly over. This Saturday, Southampton fans will get their first taste of the 2016-17 English Premier League season with a home fixture against Watford.
At first glance, it looks to be a fairly even match between two teams with more than a passing resemblance.
Both have new managers, with Frenchman Claude Puel replacing the outgoing Ronald Koeman for Southampton and Italian gaffer Walter Mazzarri stepping into the position vacated at Vicarage Road by Spaniard Quique Sánchez Flores. While both new bosses bring strong pedigrees in the Ligue 1 and Serie A respectively, neither has ever managed an English club.
Both Watford and Southampton had successful seasons last year, punching above their weights to finish on Premiership-high 13th and 6th positions respectively. Each had to contend with the departure of a manager and the rebuilding of a squad this summer, so its safe to say each set of fans will want to see 3 points out of this early test.
How We Got Here: Preseason Roundup
Southampton had a highly successful preseason friendly campaign, winning 5 and drawing 1 of their friendlies, which included a brace of teams from the Dutch Eredivisie as well as La Liga mainstays Espanyol and Athletic Bilbao. The club also took a tour to the United States this summer as part of its new kit contract with sportswear giant Under Armour; whilst there, Southampton met the D.C. United Under-23s in a closed friendly and came out 2-0 on top. An impressive goal difference of +9 featured a spread out workload, with Charlie Austin and new signing Nathan Redmond each contributing two goals and James Ward-Prowse, Jay Rodriguez, Pierre Højbjerg, Virgil Van Dijk, Sam Gallagher, Oriol Romeu and Shane Long each getting on the score sheet once.
Defensively, the team looked solid, with keeper Fraser Forster keeping clean-sheets in his halves of participation and backup keeper Alex McCarthy looking solid save for one blown penalty against Espanyol. Notably absent from the defensive setup were Portuguese internationals Cédric and Jose Fonte, who were given an extended break as a reward for their Euro-winning performance this summer. That their absence was not missed on the back line certainly bodes well for Southampton, who will need every bit of depth they can get in the season to come.
Watford have had a bit of a rocky preseason campaign as the club struggled to adapt to new manager Walter Mazzari’s tactics, loss of attacking mid Almen Abdi to Sheffield Wednesday and winger Steven Berghuis to Feyenoord on a season loan, and the shuffling-in of new signings Isaac Success, Jerome Sinclair and Christian Kabasele. The squad’s opening friendly against non-League side Woking ended in a disappointing 1-1 draw, but the club recovered its form and won the next two fixtures against Stevenage and Union Berlin easily, coming out 2-0 and 3-1 up respectively. The club’s next two fixtures were a forgettable 0-0 draw against Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala and a disappointing loss 2-0 loss to QPR, before ending on a 2-2 draw with FC Lorient last Saturday.
Offensively, Watford’s stalwart attacking mid Troy Deeney continued to show his top form, scoring off PKs in the Union Berlin and Lorient matches and making his presence known throughout the summer campaign. Defensive midfielder Étienne Capoue was a surprising contributor to the offensive effort, putting in two, and new signing Jerome Sinclair also found the back of the net once for the Hornets. Defensively, though, the team often looked out-of-sorts, allowing too much space in the box for the opposition and failing to shut down the attack in midfield.
Breaking Down The Tactics
Frenchman Claude Puel’s Southampton will likely stick with the 4-4-2 diamond that’s become their favored formation since he took over; expect Redmond and Long up front, with Tadic at the tip of the diamond feeding them and occasionally breaking through the middle himself. With how Puel likes to play wing-backs, we can expect to see Cedric and Ryan Bertrand getting forward in attack, with defensive mid Oriol Romeu and perhaps Jordy Clasie dropping back a bit to cover.
Tactically speaking, Southampton have been mastering the art of the high press, so expect the natural speed of Redmond and Long to be released early and often to create mismatches and one-on-ones against Watford’s keeper. The extent to which this works will depend on whether the Watford defense will fall into the high press and come up to meet the attack, or stay disciplined and wait for Southampton to come to it. If they take the bait, a quick onside pass to Redmond or Long opens up a lot of space and makes it a long day at the office for the Hornets.
Watford under Walter Mazzarri have been showing 3-5-2 as they come out, but haven’t really settled on a preferred form of attack thus far. A mixture of long-balling, crosses into the box and some elements of the high-press have all been featured in the preseason run-up. However the Hornets decide to attack the task at hand, we’re likely to see strikers Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo feature in the action.
Players to Watch
Shane Long: Long showed his blazing speed and expert finish in a mismatch goal against Athletic Bilbao last weekend. Expect more of the same from the Southampton striker against a defense that will be in fits to contain him.
Troy Deeney: Team captain Deeney is the rock upon which Watford’s attacking efforts are built, whether it’s setting up Ighalo or taking them in himself. We can expect to see him challenge Fraser Forster’s reaction time with a few screamers from outside the box, and try to pick out some forward men with long balls in from midfield.
Pierre Hojbjerg: The 21-year-old Dane is likely to get the start playing in the midfield and will be keen to show us why he was once considered the heir to Bastian Schweinsteiger at Bayern Munich. His vision in midfield means we can look for him to try and cut out any Watford buildup and set up a counterattack for the forward men.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
Southampton have an early test here, but one they should pass easily. Their Premier League all-time record against Watford is a modest 10-9-6, but the club haven’t lost to the Hornets since 2008. On the other hand, Southampton seem to have a bit of a jinx hanging over them: they haven’t won a home opener since being promoted to the Premier League for the 2012-13 season. For what my money’s worth though, Saturday’s the day that jinx ends. Southampton are just too polished on both ends, and Watford’s defense too raw, to see it going down any other way.
Prediction: Southampton 2-0 Watford