On Friday, Southampton welcome Liverpool to St. Mary’s Stadium for what could be a pivotal match for the Saints. Following their second consecutive victory, Southampton will have a tremendous opportunity to offset Liverpool’s title campaign as well as decisively widen the gap between themselves and the relegation zone.
The stakes for this late-season clash will be as high as the emotions it will bring with former Saints players such as Sadio Mane and Virgil Van Dijk returning to the south coast in league-topping form. Despite the polarized nature of match given the two sides’ positions in the Premier League table, Liverpool looks to be expecting a real test from Saints. In a quote from Mane before Liverpool’s win over Tottenham, the Senegal international reportedly suggested that the biggest threat to Liverpool’s title hopes could come from the bottom of the table just as easily as it could from a team at the top.
“People expect the only tough games to be against the top six, but sometimes that’s not the case because it’s unpredictable”, said Mane in a Sky Sports interview on which of Liverpool’s remaining matches poses the biggest threat to derailing their title race with Manchester City, “(the tough match) could be Southampton”.
Southampton’s performance against top 6 opponents under Ralph Hasenhuttl is likely something Mane has considered, along with the Liverpool forward’s own experience in taking down more favorable opponents as a Saint. Since Hasenhuttl’s arrival in Southampton, the Saints have shown a tenacious approach to “top 6” opponents in fearless displays of counter-offensive play and pressing their opponents into making mistakes in their passing game.
After beating Tottenham in March, the Saints record against top 6 opponents under Hasenhuttl improved to 2-1-3. Apart from the Arsenal away match, Southampton have impressed in games against heavily-favored opposition. In fact, Southampton have garnered the 6th most points in the league since the start of the year. This is certainly something Jurgen Klopp will factor in preparing his side for a much different Southampton than the one Liverpool beat 3-0 at Anfield in September.
“The analysis of Southampton has been very interesting because they don’t look like a side fighting to stay in the league”, said Klopp in his presser on Wednesday, “They look very confident”.
The meeting of Klopp and Hasenhuttl will be an interesting one in itself, with this match being the first Premier League meeting between two managers who earn notable comparisons to one another for their managing methods. Having come up together in the coaching circuit, it is natural to assume that Klopp and Hasenhuttl may share similar philosophies in the context of management.
When Hasenhuttl was first announced as a Premier League manager in December, the primary claim was that the Alpen Klopp had arrived in England’s top flight. The main reason for the comparison is Hasenhuttl’s method of skillfully pressing opponents and playing a high-tempo match. This is something people have become accustomed to with Klopp teams, from Dortmund to Anfield. Attention regarding the similarity of the two managers came initially when Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita made the switch from the then-Hasenhuttl’s RB Leipzig to the Merseyside. An article on Bundesliga.com profiled the managers in an effort to claim that Keita was well-suited to make the switch to Liverpool on account of the sharp similarity of Klopp and Hasenhuttl’s styles
An interesting quote in the article came from Hasenhuttl, who for the first time addressed his comparisons to Klopp.
“I think we appreciate a similar philosophy on football – we want to play a high tempo game, we want our guys to sprint around, press well and these are elements which make the game livelier and varied and get people excited.”
However, the Saints boss has made it clear that being likened to Klopp is not his goal. When the Austrian first took over at Southampton, he expressed that he wanted to define himself as a manager. Friday’s match against Klopp’s Liverpool, who will go to the top of the league with a win over Saints, will certainly be an opportunity for Hasenhuttl to elevate himself beyond a comparative definition.
From a roster standpoint, the Saints may be slightly short-handed on the attack. From all accounts, Shane Long is hopeful to appear against Liverpool, but a start is not likely since the Irishman has been recovering from a groin injury. However, should Long be fit, his pace could be very helpful in the late stages of the game. As per his loan deal from Liverpool, Saints’ leading scorer Danny Ings will be ineligible for selection against his parent club which leaves Hasenhuttl with Charlie Austin and Sam Gallagher as his primary options for forwards to start the match.
Given Gallagher’s performance last week against Brighton, where the striker never seemed comfortable after being subbed on for Ings, Hasenhuttl may opt for the more-experienced option in Austin to start. And why not? Despite his shortage of goals, Austin showed decent composure and awareness in his most recent start against Tottenham at St. Mary’s before being brought off for more pacier options in Long and Josh Sims at halftime.
Although not the quickest option, Austin’s physicality was useful in the press in the first half where the forward made three tackles against Tottenham’s skillful midfield. Depending on the midfielders Klopp deploys, Hasenhuttl will want to ensure the players he selects can press the Liverpool midfield which looked a bit underwhelming at times versus Tottenham in their previous match at Anfield.
Should Klopp use the same trio from Liverpool’s previous match, the press from Hasenhuttl’s might be able to lure the midfield combination of Jordan Henderson, James Milner, and Georginio Wijnaldum into committing similar errors that befell Tottenham’s central men in the possession game they utilized against Southampton. However, should Klopp opt for a more dynamic option in Fabinho, whose skillful concentration on the ball has helped his passing game and allows the Brazilian to keep possession in tight areas of the midfield, Southampton will have to be more wary of the threat he can bring in supplying balls to Liverpool’s lethal attacking force of Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah who will certainly look to stretch the Southampton defense. The central defensive midfielder, who many Liverpool fans believe should start every game, would also serve as the vital passing link between the Liverpool centre backs Van Dijk, and Joel Matip and their efforts in getting the ball forward. It will be surprising if Fabinho does not play given the impact he made coming on against Tottenham and being instrumental in the possession game and positive play shown by Liverpool in their second half
Coming off an impressive away win, the expectation is that Hasenhuttl will not deviate greatly from his squad selection with his midfield and defence likely to feature familiar faces from the win over Brighton. In the past, Hasenhuttl has shown a trend of relying on the same squads that produce points and results for subsequent matches. According to Hasenhuttl, there is still hope for centreback Jannik Vestergaard to make an appearance as the Danish defender was reportedly nursing an injury prior to the Brighton clash. It will not be surprising if Hasenhuttl once again deploys the 2-2-2-4 formation that allowed for Southampton to be creative in the midfield during their 2nd half display against Brighton, this time with Austin at the front paired with Nathan Redmond.
In Hasenhuttl’s press conference, the Austrian expressed delight in the way the formation worked at the Amex Stadium.
“I must say I like this shape and it worked very well”, said Hasenhuttl, “This is the kind of development we need at this stage of the season, to have the ability to do something different”.
Hasenhuttl will likely allow Redmond to take on the free-roaming role where he may try to stretch opponents on the wing or tuck back into the traditional #10 position where he can help the Saints midfield in distribution — which he showed in the previous match in supplying winning goal to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. Either way, Redmond will be vital in Southampton’s likely use of the counter-attacking game with Liverpool being a very patient and possessive team.
For many teams at the bottom half of the Premier League table, a fixture against Liverpool may look menacing. Everything about Southampton under Hasenhuttl and their performances against top 6 sides indicate otherwise. Recent comments from club captain, Hojbjerg, show that Saints are eager to take on an opponent like Liverpool to show the footballing world what Southampton are about by spoiling Liverpool’s pursuit of its first ever Premier League title in the modern era. With some familiar names taking the pitch expressing awareness in Southampton’s ability to giant-kill, and confidence running high, who is to say there is not a chance Saints can pull off a miraculous upset?
LAST 5 RESULTS:
Brighton 0-1 Southampton – Premier League
Southampton 2-1 Tottenham – Premier League
Manchester United 3-2 Southampton – Premier League
Southampton 2-0 Fulham – Premier League
Arsenal 2-0 Southampton – Premier League
Liverpool 2-1 Tottenham – Premier League
Fulham 1-2 Liverpool – Premier League
Bayern Munich 1-3 Liverpool – Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg
Liverpool 4-2 Burnley – Premier League
Everton 0-0 Liverpool – Premier League
Score Prediction: Southampton 1-2 Liverpool