Tactics writer Sam Tighe highlights the importance of the midfield battle ahead of Southampton's Premier League clash with Champions League-chasing Tottenham at St Mary's.
What mood are Tottenham Hotspur in for this visit to St Mary’s Stadium?
It’s been a week of calm for Tottenham – a relative novelty for the club in 2023.
Between mixed Premier League results, injuries to key players, Champions League nights and Antonio Conte’s recovery from gallbladder surgery, “normal” weeks have been sparing at Spurs of late.
They come into this game off the back of a week’s preparation and rest, having just beaten Nottingham Forest quite convincingly, and they’ll be eager to push on and secure another vital three points in the race for the top four.
In order to do so, they’ll need to snap a four-game away losing streak, having last won outside of London in January.
What went so right for Spurs last week?
They started fast – really fast. Richarlison took Dejan Kulusevski’s spot in the XI and played like a man with a point to prove, scoring inside the first five minutes (VAR ruled it out), winning a penalty and generally providing a buzz to the attack that had been lacking.
For Conte, it will have been a welcome sight given his team have been notoriously slow starters in games this term.
Richarlison’s combination play with right-wing-back Pedro Porro looked good; the former drifted inside and ran the shoulder of the defence, while the latter held the width and provided crosses. It’s a very new pairing but it looked good here.
What else must Saints be wary of, and where can they find joy?
Richarlison’s burst of energy aside, the attack still pivots around Harry Kane. He dominates the central column of the pitch and Spurs give him the ball to feet, allowing him to hold, turn and pass. This is when Richarlison and Son Heung-Min’s runs in behind become a serious concern.
Any team who hopes to bottle up Spurs must hold Kane at arm’s length, either by starving him of the ball or by jostling and disrupting him, preventing him from turning and getting his head up. The former is much easier than the latter, it seems.
Any midfield involving Pierre-Emile Højbjerg can quickly become a battleground – something James Ward-Prowse and Co. should know well – and Saints must put the man advantage (three vs two) in the middle to good use. That, plus some well-timed pressing, can lead to turnovers in good areas.
In attack, Saints must be bold and willing to test Spurs’ defensive line. Cristian Romero’s hyper-aggressive style can be effective, but it can also open up big spaces to use and he walks the disciplinary tightrope. Eric Dier has license to move into midfield too and that can open up more gaps.
Predicted XI (3-4-3): Forster; Romero, Dier, Lenglet; Porro, Skipp, Højbjerg, Davies; Richarlison, Kane, Son.
-With a week’s rest, an unchanged XI from Spurs’ 3-1 win over Forest would not surprise
-That would mean Kulusevski and Ivan Perišić, among others, settle for the bench
-Porro bagged his first assist for Spurs against Forest, but faces competition for his spot from the more defensively-minded Emerson Royal
-Fraser Forster continues to stand in for the injured Hugo Lloris; Kane deputises as captain
-Oliver Skipp is enjoying a run in the team while Rodrigo Bentancur is recovering