More than just a win as Southampton beat Wednesday 2-1

Southampton (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
Southampton (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images) /

We’re top of the league / We’re top of the leeeeaaagggue / We are Southampton / We’re top of the league.

Man, it was nice to hear that song ringing down from the away support section. It’s only one game but it felt as if the pain from a year of drama, frustration, and constant losing was washed away by the right boot of Ché Zach Everton Fred Adams. You could tell the man with too many middle names enjoyed his late winner — but how different the story could’ve been.

The Saints opened the Championship season playing Russell Martin’s patented fluid 4-3-3. In possession, fullbacks Ryan Manning and Kyle Walker-Peters inverted into midfield to create a system with 4 distinct lines. Line 1: a backline of Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek, Line 2: Manning, KWP, and Will Smallbone, Line 3: captain James Ward-Prowse and Carlos Alcaraz, and finally Line 4: striker Adam Armstrong and wingers Nathan Tella and Sam Edozie. Ward-Prowse and Alcaraz routinely would drop into line 2 to provide an additional passing option, and out of possession Alcaraz would join the forward line to create more of a traditional 4-4-2 in defense.

Southampton did more than just get a win over Wednesday

In this game, we saw both the strengths and shortcomings of this system. Sheffield Wednesday offered no pressing resistance whatsoever, sitting deep inside their own half in a 4-4-1-1, clogging the middle of the pitch, and challenging Southampton to come at them. Well come at them Saints did; in the 8th minute, KWP drove at the Wednesday backline and laid it off to Nathan Tella. Tella unleashed a curling left-footed effort from 20 yards which nestled into the back of the net.

Tella immediately found his manager and celebrated with Russell Martin and the team. When asked about his celebration postgame, Tella responded he was looking for Joe Aribo but settled on Martin instead. While seemingly an innocuous comment — if Aribo has a positive influence on the younger players this could prove important in filling the leadership vacuum if/when Ward-Prowse moves on.

Regardless Tella seemed to really enjoy his goal (which was subsequently taken away from him — it took a nick off Adam Armstrong on the way). With Burnley stepping up their #freeNathanTella campaign, I wonder if his ear-to-ear smile on celebrating this goal will make it into their social media feed.

The remainder of the first half would see more one-way traffic toward the Wednesday net. JWP, KWP and Tella’s combination play was excellent throughout resulting in a few more shots from the edge of the 18. Sam Edozie was a handful for Wednesday’s defenders, drawing multiple yellow cards and getting into dangerous positions.

Even Jan Bednarek got into the fun, doing “pausa” multiple times, where he would dwell on the ball daring an opposition player to press and then play a quick upfield pass. Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens…doing pausa…we’ve really seen it all. The Cornish Beckenbauer Jack Stephens looked especially comfortable driving forward with the ball, which is something the Saints should build upon going forward.

Southampton were also incorporating aspects of the Hasenhüttl playbook, showing Martin’s flexibility. Saints were counter-pressing intensely, swarming the ball whenever they would lose it. Furthermore, an old Ralph tactic of allowing the ball to the wing-backs and then the striker pressing from behind resulted in several turnovers from Wednesday’s players (Adam Armstrong was especially good at this). The Saints would go into halftime cruising with their 1-0 lead.

But Wednesday would strike only 10 minutes later. A rare foray forward for the newly promoted side resulted in a corner, an inswinging ball was nodded down and striker Lee Gregory was first to pounce with a nice finish into the bottom corner.

All of a sudden what was a comfortable, cruising victory for Southampton turned into an indictment of the Martin system. Saints had over 70% of possession, but barely any chances. Saints had over 600 passes, but almost no touches in the opposition box. Most importantly, Southampton was not claiming all 3 points in what will be a fiendishly tight promotion race.

The next 30 minutes were incredibly nervy for Southampton fans. Saints continued to pass the ball around and dominate possession but generated very few clear-cut chances at goal. Too often dangerous positions were wasted, especially by Sam Edozie, who time and time again would get past his man but could not connect with a teammate on his crosses. It is clear Edozie has bags of talent, but his end product is the only thing holding him back from becoming a real star at this level.

Similarly, Adam Armstrong was ineffective against the low block of Sheffield Wednesday. Armstrong is incredibly good at progressive dribbling with the ball and is a decent finisher. But as a lone number 9, he struggles. Continually he would attempt to turn Wednesday defenders and lose the ball, and his link-up play was ineffective.

Going forward, Armstrong’s position in the Southampton team should be evaluated. He is a talented player and will be useful, but might not be suited to play as a striker in Martin’s system, especially against teams that will sit deeper (as I expect most teams will against Southampton).

A 1-1 draw against a newly promoted side would’ve been a disappointing result given the expectations on Southampton this season. While it is too early for a full-on inquest, questions on Martin and his system’s effectiveness would inevitably be asked.

Fortunately for all of us, Southampton struck back. Massive credit must be given to Martin, his substitutions were spot on. Firstly, he brought on Stu Armstrong for Carlos Alcaraz. Stu immediately started to unleash his driving runs with the ball through the Wednesday lines.

Against Wednesday’s low block, the willingness of Stu to progress the ball by dribbling was key, and he created several chances single-handedly. Stu is a Premier League standard player, and the Saints would do well to hold on to him.

But Martin’s 2nd substitution, Ché Adams for Adam Armstrong, was the key. 5 minutes later James Ward-Prowse made an intelligent run into the box and was found by Walker-Peters. JWP played a perfect cut back and Ché neatly finished past the Wednesday keeper. 2-1, and 3 points were back on track. That is the more physical presence in the box Ché provides that Adam Armstrong does not, and Martin should keep this in mind going forward.

Southampton would see the game out in style. After a flurry of chances for Wednesday late in regular time, they would barely get a touch throughout the stoppage time. The Saints passed the ball around and didn’t let the Wednesday players get near it, professionally killing off the game (and looking like 2013 Barcelona in the process).

Southampton’s final game in the Premier League last season was a 4-4 draw against Liverpool on May 28th. The final stat line was indicative of how the Saints under Rubén Sellés wanted to play: 31% possession, and 272 passes to Liverpool’s 604. It is safe to say they don’t play that way anymore. Stats against Wednesday: 80% possession, 987 passes (a new Championship record), and 3 points in the bag.

What a difference 68 days and a new manager makes. The Saints of last year would’ve lost their heads upon conceding and likely gone on to draw or lose the game. This time they kept their nerve, continued on with the gameplan and were rewarded accordingly. It felt like catharsis, the frustrations of the past year starting to slip away.

After getting over the buzz of victory (something Saints fans haven’t felt since March 4th!), there are still things Russell Martin’s men need to improve on. Set pieces were an issue, as Wednesday looked dangerous throughout on dead ball situations. Secondly, the Saints need to improve on their final third play.

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They continually isolated Tella, Edozie, and Walker-Peters out wide against Wednesday full-backs, however, they failed to connect with teammates on their crosses. But these are minor quibbles in what was a dominant victory. We are top of the league. We are top of the league. We are Southampton. We are top of the league.