There's nothing better than sleeping in your own bed. After a while you know every detail of it, it is your escape, your happy place. Which is why at least personally, I have trouble sleeping in hotels. Yes the mattress is comfortable, the pillows perfectly fluffed, everything is great, but something is off. It isn't yours. Everything should be perfect, but it's not.
14 games unbeaten for Southampton FC should be one of the highest moments in the club's history. But like the bed that isn't yours, something is off. 14 games unbeaten, but 5 of them were draws. 14 games unbeaten, but somehow the Saints have lost ground on leaders Leicester and Ipswich. 14 games unbeaten, but (prior to Blackburn), a goal differential of only +4.
And the midweek draw with Coventry City gave full voice to the whisper in the back of Southampton fans' heads. They are flat. Low energy. The system doesn't create enough chances. They aren't clinical enough to take those chances. Etc. etc.
But Russell Martin and his players seemed to be listening. A 4-0 drubbing of 10 man Blackburn Rovers Saturday showcased some new tactical tweaks to Martin's famed 4-3-3. To get back to winning ways was important, but even more important was the manner of the victory. They created high quality chances, and completely dominated in every phase of the game. With a critical stretch of the Championship season approaching, the Southampton engine could finally be clicking. But can they sustain it? Let's dive right in.
1. Russell Martin returns to an old flame
Every decade has a movement. The 90s had grunge, the 2000s had boy bands, the 2010s had Facebook and Twitter. And the 2020s is the decade of the inverted fullback. Teams across Europe's top leagues are asking their traditional fullbacks to step inside to the midfield, and create central overloads. Well...teams across Europe's top leagues and Southampton. For the first weeks of the season, Russell Martin instructed fullbacks Kyle Walker-Peters and Ryan Manning to fully invert.
The results were problematic. The Saints looked confused and lost, conceded a ton of goals, and eventually scrapped the idea. KWP and Manning became more traditional wingbacks, sticking closer to the touchline, and the Saints improved.
But facing a stalling Saints attack, against Blackburn Martin went back to his first love. Fullbacks KWP and James Bree (especially KWP) inverted fully into the midfield. Their inverting allowed Saints to dominate centrally, but also freed up the normal central midfielders to make incisive runs into the box. This led to Southampton's 2nd and 4th goals, as well as numerous other chances. The Saints being able to play both styles of fullback play will be key going forward as they adapt tactically throughout the season.
2. Introducing Edozie and the Wee Man
Much has been made of Southampton's over-reliance on their goals and assists leader Adam Armstrong, especially in the absence of direct winger Kamaldeen Sulemana. But of late a new scoring duo has emerged from the wing. Sam Edozie chipped in goals against Coventry and Blackburn, and the Wee Man Ryan Fraser contributed an assist against Blackburn, and was the main creative force behind Edozie's coventry goal.
Both Edozie and the Wee Man have been playing much more directly of late. Get the ball, beat the first man, get a cross in. Fraser especially has been deadly with his crosses, and Edozie's final third play has been improving. If these two can continue to fire, Southampton will become that much more deadly.
3. Jack Stephens is back
Brief one here, but it was great to see Captain Jack Stephens in his 30 minute cameo Saturday. Last week we discussed the problem of where he will play, but Stephens is too talented to keep out of the lineup completely. And the games are coming thick and fast for Saints in the holiday season. Bednarek and Taylor Harwood-Bellis will need resting, and having Premier League tested Stephens on the bench will be a great luxury for Russell Martin.
4. Ryan Manning is running out of leeway
Ryan Manning has done some great things for Southampton this season. He is a consistent and willing progressive passer and is 4th on the team in assists. While he has his issues defensively, he competes, and has improved in recent weeks. But what last season's left back of the year hasn't cut out of his game -- high profile mistakes. After making a few early in the season, he had an absolute howler against Coventry, giving away the ball in the Saints defensive 3rd, then lackadaisically jogging back as striker Haji Wright scored past Gavin Bazunu. It was not a surprise that James Bree replaced Manning in the starting lineup against Blackburn. Bree looks to have moved above Manning in the pecking order, and more high profile errors could leave him out in the cold.
5. The Saints have a real opportunity in the coming weeks
With Ipswich failing to win at the weekend, for the first time in a long time, the Saints have gained points on the Championship frontrunners. And they have a real chance over the congested holiday season to gain more ground. The next 6 league games for Southampton: QPR (22nd), Swansea (18th), Plymouth Argyle (16th), Norwich City (10th), Sheffield Wednesday (23rd), and Swansea again. They realistically could gain all 18 points from these games. Within that span leaders Leicester and Ipswich play each other twice and Ipswich also plays Leeds. If the holiday spirit blesses the Saints they could move within 6-8 points of automatic promotion by mid-January. And if history has taught us anything in the Championship, anything can happen from there.