It is a good time to be a fan of Southampton Football Club. The Saints are winning games, scoring beautiful goals, and are so massive they've even made it to the House of Commons. They are making this run playing champagne football, with a high intensity, technically demanding system under new manager Russell Martin.
This newly implemented system has led to some fantastic attacking play, and Southampton are sitting 4th in the Championship in goals scored and 7th in xG. Each player's' role in the offensive phase of play is unique, leading to each having a drastically different set of demands placed upon them. Russell Martin would probably tell you that there is no single most important player in the attack, everyone plays their part.
And this is most likely true! Remove one cog from the wheel and the entire cart goes off the track. But in the Southampton attack, the biggest cog might be misleading. Adam Armstrong has been a revelation this season, with a team leading 12 goals, good for 2nd in the Championship. He also leads the team in assists with 4. Time and time again flowing Southampton moves have ended with Armstrong slashing the ball past the opposition goalkeeper. But while this eye test tells one story, the statistics tell another. Is Adam Armstrong actually driving Southampton's attack?
Of course he is -- you may be thinking. He is Southampton's leading scorer...and it's not even close (12 goals for Arma, next closest is the combo of Che Adams and Will Smallbone with 3 each). Having also chipped in 4 assists, he has contributed to over just over 50% of Southampton's 31 total goals. So how could it be that the #2 scorer in the Championship who is carrying his team's goal output isn't the most important Saint?
Answer: he doesn't touch the ball. Seriously, unless he is putting the ball in the net, Adam Armstrong doesn't touch the ball. He has had 649 touches so far in this season. That number means nothing without context I know, so here is some for you. Gavin Bazunu has touched the ball 773 times. Arma has less touches of the football than the goalkeeper! Factor in the minutes each player has played, and the story gets worse. Guess where Adam Armstrong places in touches per 90 minutes on Southampton...its 2nd from bottom at 36 touches per 90 minutes (only above out of form striker Che Adams).
So Russell Martin asks Adam Armstrong only to get the ball if he is within striking distance of the opposition goal. And although he has been scoring and assisting in bunches, Arma has not been contributing to the attack in other meaningful ways. In fact quite the opposite, despite being around the bottom in touches, he is top in the squad in times dispossessed (and top 5 in times dispossessed per 90). The other advanced statistics paint a similarly bleak picture -- at the bottom or near it in pass completions, progressive passing, and ball carrying.
To conclude, in an interesting quirk of Southampton FC, Adam Armstrong scores the most goals, has the most assists, but barely touches the ball. When he does, he loses it more often than anyone else. It is not abormal for strikers to rarely get the ball, but Arma takes it to a new level. Similarly, it is actually not a good thing for him to get the ball unless he is actively around the penalty area. And this isn't just a Russell Martin striker thing. Carlos Alcaraz, who has been mostly utilized as a striker this season, ranks middle of the pack in touches, passing stats, and retaining possession statistics.
So Arma is playing the role of pure poacher this season. This is odd given that last season he was almost purely a ball progresser in the attacking phase. The change of scenery from the Premiership to the Championship has done wonders for Armstrong's goal scoring, but seems to have made his non-scoring efforts regress. While some of this is definitely schematic, Arma has taken it to an extreme. It will be fascinating to watch if as Southampton continue to evolve this season, if Armstrong's role evolves with it, and if he can keep up his prolific goal scoring ways.
If you enjoyed this analytical deep dive, please let us know! As Southampton continue to evolve throughout the season we will continue to tactically evaluate players and how they fit into Russell Martin's plans. Coming next week -- the Scottish Iniesta.