Southampton: Season Preview 2021/22
If you’ll forgive the tired cliché, the only apt phrase to describe Southampton in 2020/21 is that of Jekyll and Hyde.
One Southampton side made a 7-2-3 start to the season, lifting them into the Champions League places with a return of 23 points from 12 games. The other returned just 20 points in their remaining 26 games. Relegation form for two-thirds of the season puts a bit of scrutiny on Ralph Hasenhüttl’s reign at the club, but it’s necessary to dig a bit deeper to try and establish why they were so bad in the second half of the season, and whether there’s any reason to give Hasenhüttl and Southampton the benefit of the doubt coming into the 2021/22 campaign.
The first place to look, as always, is in the expected goals (xG) numbers. And therein lies a lot of the story.
Southampton’s performances in the first 12 games were ~fine, but there were clear signs that they’d made a start that was too hot for them to handle. They scored at double their expected goals in that period, plundering 22 non-penalty goals from 11.7 expected. The goals were coming from everywhere; Danny Ings and Che Adams had four each; James Ward-Prowse had already converted three direct free-kicks; Jannik Vestergaard had towered three headed goals from set plays. It was halcyon days on the south coast, but the warning signs were there that they might not last.
That came to pass in an extreme way. From games 13-38, their hot finished deserted them; not only did they not convert their chances at a level close to their expected rate, but they actually undershot their 25.6 xG created by ~six goals. It was even worse at the back, where they conceded 45 goals from ~34 expected. Combined, Southampton finished ~17 goals behind expectation in the latter two-thirds of the season, an underperformance of 0.65 goals per game.
You live by the sword; you die by the sword. The clinical edge that the Saints wielded in the opening fixtures was turned back on them. All of a sudden, it was the opposition who enjoyed the finishing streak.
Unfortunately, a lot of the blame on the defensive end has to fall on Alex McCarthy’s shoulders. The goalkeeper enjoyed a solid shot-stopping season in 2019/20—second only to Hugo Lloris in our shot-stopping metric, based on the quality of shots faced—but completely regressed in 2020/21, putting in the worst season by that measure for goalkeepers with >1200 minutes played. He seemed to develop a real weakness for shots to his right-hand side in particular.
We saw top-four results in the first third of the season, bottom-four results in the latter two-thirds. Southampton were neither as good as their early results suggested, nor as bad as the latter results implied. Taking the season as a whole, the likely reality is that Southampton’s true level is somewhere in the middle of the two.
There were still hallmarks of Hasenhüttl’s high-octane style in Southampton’s play. They remained one of the most aggressive sides in the league out of possession—ranking 2nd in the league on the Aggression % metric, with 25% of opponent pass receipts being pressed, tackled, or fouled within 2 seconds, and they also made the 2nd-most defensive regains that occurred after a counterpressure. Southampton remained an awkward opponent to play against, engaging the press from the front, blowing attacks up in the middle third, and maintaining the intensity of that approach when the opposition reached their defensive territory.
An interesting quirk in the context of their defensive scheme was that Saints started to defend deeper and deeper as results continued to nosedive. They seemed to withdraw inside themselves, perhaps due to waning confidence or a tactical shift to try and bunker down and ride out the rough period. After the first ten games of the season, the average height of Southampton’s defensive actions was 44.6 metres from their goal; by the end of the season it was 40.7 metres.
Even though they were dropping deeper, the same aggressive pressing principles remained; Southampton just started allowing the opposition to come onto them a bit more before they engaged with them. Only 43% of their pressures --of which there were many-- came in the attacking half of the pitch. That, coupled with their own deficiencies in possession, meant that goalmouth action was hard to come by at St. Mary’s: there were just 77 final third entries per game in matches involving Southampton, the fewest in the league.
The trouble was, when the opposition did break through into Southampton territory, they tended to cause some damage. Southampton only conceded 11.1 shots per game – the 8th-best record in the division – but the shots they did concede tended to be from close range and of high quality: their shots conceded came from 15.6 metres out on average (19th in the league), and the xG per shot of those shots was 0.12 (17th in the league). The opposite was true at the attacking end; their average shot came 17.1 metres from goal (18th in the league) and the average xG value of those shots was 0.09 (15th in the league).
One area they did excel in was from set-plays, armed with one of the very few dead-ball specialists in the game at the minute. James Ward-Prowse put numerous deliveries on a plate for his teammates, creating 39 shots on goal from set-pieces, a total surpassed only by Mason Mount, but registering six set-piece assists, tied 1st in the league with West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell.
The data confirms Ward-Prowse's world class dead-ball ability. He’s scored ten direct free-kicks from 4.4 xG and 72 shots over the last six seasons, a scoring rate that means it’s possible he genuinely might be an even better free-kick taker than Lionel Messi—Messi has 39 goals from 423 direct free-kicks across his entire La Liga shaking out at a 9% conversion rate, a clip that pales in comparison to Ward-Prowse’s 14%.
Personnel & Transfers
Let’s move onto the transfer window and the state of the current squad. Southampton Chief Executive Martin Semmens said this in May:
“We have to invest this summer, and we will within our limits by buying young players who allow us to compete in the future. We will spend in the summer, and we already are well into the process of doing it.”
The good news is that Southampton are delivering on the promise of signing younger players. The bad news is that they sold star striker Danny Ings.
But is it bad news? Southampton received £30m from Aston Villa for a 29-year old in the last year of his contract and who had just had a quieter-than-usual season in 2020/21. It’s plenty of cash to potentially reinvest in a younger striking partner for Che Adams, whose scoring contribution of 14 matched Ings’ total for the season. The top target is rumoured to be another striker ready to graduate from the Championship in the same way Adams did back in 2019.
Blackburn’s Adam Armstrong is the name, coincidentally a player we flagged back in November last year as a potential replacement for Ings at Southampton. Armstrong took by far the most shots per game in the Championship last season with 4.4 per 90, an astronomical rate and double the rate Ings managed at Saints. He fits the profile of a busy, high-usage forward who can get on the end of (and convert) the majority of chances a team creates while also being a tick in the “get younger” box. Armstrong’s capable of scoring from anywhere; letting fly from range, running in behind to receive throughballs, or poaching between the goalposts. His 0.12 xG per shot in 2020/21 was identical to the rate Ings put up.
The other notable trade made at the time of writing is that of Ryan Bertrand’s departure to Leicester and his subsequent replacement by Romain Perraud from Stade Brestois. As per Semmens’ transfer window remit, Perraud comes in as a 23-year-old to replace the 32-year-old Bertrand with what appears to be a similar playing profile to his predecessor. Perraud provided seven assists from left-back last season, more than any other full-back in Ligue 1.
Southampton feel like a bit of an unknown ahead of this season. The squad’s about to undergo another transition: the departures of Ings and Bertrand are already confirmed, James Ward-Prowse and giant centre-back Jannik Vestergaard are also linked with potential moves away. That and the downward spiral in the latter half of last season has dampened faith in the Saints, and the betting markets have reduced their confidence in them accordingly, pegging them as a ~42 points team, one shy of the disappointing 43 point tally they ended 2020/21 with.
The underlying numbers give cause for encouragement that they should at least match last year's points total and keep the relegation scrap at arm's length. In the bigger picture, a summer of squad turnover and regeneration towards younger players with less Premier League experience is designed to be a long-term blessing, but it could be a short-term curse if the incomings are unable to adapt straight away. But that said, Hasenhüttl’s style does lend itself towards youthful exuberance, and the new blood could be the refresh that the Southampton squad needs. It’s hard to see Southampton springing a surprise on the division, but they’ll be looking to take a step forward in their ambition to rise back up the Premier League table again.
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