From disastrous to courageous, Saints followed up last weekend’s 6-0 defeat to Chelsea with the perfect reaction: digging deep to survive the late Arsenal onslaught and emerge with a revitalising three points.

It was a performance that barely resembled the dishevelled and disorganised mess against Thomas Tuchel’s side as Saints defended bravely and kept Arsenal at an arms’ length - with the help of some outrageous Fraser Forster goalkeeping.

Arsenal should have taken the lead in the 17th minute when Bukayo Saka was presented with an open goal, but Forster somehow got a hand on it to steer it away.

The save looked even more crucial by half-time when Saints went into the break armed with the lead thanks to Jan Bednarek’s expert finish in the 44th minute.

Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side then sat deep as Arsenal searched for an equaliser but despite forcing a string of terrific saves out of Forster, the visitors could not find a way past the big Saints keeper as the hosts held on for victory, in the process displaying the reaction everyone connected to the club was so desperate to see.

Daily Echo: Saints celebrate beating Arsenal. Image by: Stuart MartinSaints celebrate beating Arsenal. Image by: Stuart Martin

Now just one point adrift of the top-ten, this is how Saints earned their win against the Champions League-chasing Gunners…

Diligent But Adaptable

Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl was understandably subject to significant criticism following last weekend’s heavy defeat.

After finding success with a back five against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup earlier this season, Hasenhuttl went with his typical 4-2-2-2 shape to start off with against the West Londoners and as his team tried to press high, they were ruthlessly picked apart.

Reflecting on the heavy defeat, Hasenhuttl hinted at a possible move away from the high pressing structure that has become so integral to his philosophy. 

It may have been one week too late, but when the Gunners rocked up to St Mary’s, they were greeted by a very different Saints team both in attitude and structure.

Tino Livramento, Mohamed Salisu, Che Adams and Adam Armstrong dropped to the bench as Hasenhuttl went with a back five comprised of the returning Lyanco in between Jan Bednarek and Yan Valery with Kyle Walker-Peters and Romain Perraud wide of the the centre-back trio.

Armando Broja returned to the side as the lone striker and almost from the off Saints looked drilled and organised in a 5-4-1 shape.

Here is that shape in action from the third minute on Saturday…

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While Perraud and Bednarek are slightly cut off by the score in the top left corner, the two banks of Saints players are evident - the flat back five and the four ahead of them.

With nowhere to go and all Arsenal players covered - or at least the passing lanes to them covered - Granit Xhaka on the ball in the middle has to play it backwards and Arsenal start again.

Here’s another example of that shape from the half-hour mark.

Arsenal midfielder Sambi Lokonga has the ball and is looking for somewhere to go. He initially spots Martin Odegaard but with the Saints’ four midfielders narrow and disciplined, the Gunners’ number 23 eventually opts to pass back to his defence.

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The combination of Moi Elyounoussi’s body position and momentum taking him towards Odegaard, convinces Lokonga that there just isn’t enough space between the Saints winger and Oriol Romeu to attempt the pass to Odegaard.

These are awfully fine margins and a couple of yards can be the difference between forcing Arsenal back and allowing them the freedom to play through the heart of midfield.

Just ten minutes prior, Elyounoussi got those margins slightly wrong.

The rest of his teammates are perfectly set up in the back five with three of the four midfielders in their line ahead. But Elyounoussi is far too high up the pitch…

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The slight positional error allows Gabriel to thread a pass through the Saints midfield to Odegaard who has time to turn with it. 

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Arsenal eventually work the ball wide to Martinelli and his poor cross is easily caught by Forster but this unpunished error just goes to show two things: 

1. How difficult it actually is to remain so disciplined and error-free for 90 minutes. 

2. How impressively Saints did it with this mistake from Elyounoussi being the exception rather than anything of the regular.

When Bednarek crashed home the opening goal on the stroke of half-time, suddenly the job changed. Now, Saints had something to protect and as the game went on that meant dropping deeper and deeper with Arsenal pushing forward in search of the equaliser.

The chart below shows the average distance of the Saints players from their goal throughout the match. In the first half, their average position was 50.7 metres from Forster’s goal but that dropped to 36 metres in the second half as they dug in and defended their box.

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It wasn’t always pretty to watch. But it worked. And while it’s easy just to say they dropped deeper, the manner in which they did took huge levels of concentration.

Here is a great example of that total team discipline. 

It’s the 72nd minute and Arsenal have the ball just outside Saints’ box at the feet of Lokonga. But with a bank of five defenders and a second bank of four midfielders in front of him he really has nowhere to go…

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In contrast to the first half, where Saints utilised the same shape but higher up the pitch and with the full-backs wider, this time all ten outfield Saints players are within the width of the penalty area and the four midfielders are barely clear of the box.

The first half aim was to stifle Arsenal’s ability to play through the lines to Saka and Odegaard - something that was largely successful other than the one occasion highlighted earlier. 

But the second half objective was slightly different - it was to stop Arsenal getting any free space in the box - forcing them to shoot from range or go for hopeful crosses.

Scarcely believable, below is an example of Saints dropping even deeper than the previous example to snuff out yet another Arsenal attack.

Martinelli has the ball on the left side of Saints’ box and as with the prior example, he has nowhere to go. With the penalty area crowded and the Saints players in their organised lines, Martinelli eventually chooses to play it back to Xhaka…

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…whose attempted first-time cross is easily blocked by Oriol Romeu…

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Speaking after the victory Hasenhuttl said: "We wanted to be compact, we wanted to minimise the mistakes we made in the last weeks, because you have to I think when you concede 13 goals in the last four games, or whatever.

"Then you have to change things, which we did today. I know we can play more football, I know that we can play better, but it was good to know we can defend like this and this was the goal for today.”

Mission accomplished. Hasenhuttl’s side remained compact, strong and determined - avoiding the costly errors that were so easily punished by Chelsea. Hasenhuttl has shown himself to be more pragmatic this season and his team has displayed they’re capability to soak up pressure and win ugly. 

The ‘Roaming’ Centre-Back

Should Hasenhuttl have opted for a back five against Chelsea? Probably. But that’s in the past and he and the players deserve credit for adapting and recovering ahead of Arsenal’s visit.

Choosing to drop Mohamed Salisu, Hasenhuttl went with the returning Lyanco alongside Jan Bednarek and Yan Valery as the three central defenders at the heart of his system. 

As highlighted above, it was largely a flat back five rather than a back three, but the work of the trio of centre-backs was interesting and successful enough to focus on separately.

The below image - from a rare occasion of Saints possession in the second half - shows the trio’s typical starting positions with Valery and Bednarek parallel either side of the deeper Lyanco.

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Here’s the same set up from the first half…

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We spoke last week about Saints’ disastrous high line and it’s clear that an effort was made to mitigate that problem against Arsenal.

Potentially even more important than having a defender to drop deep and protect his fellow defenders, the presence of the three centre-backs allowed one of the trio to act as an extra ‘roaming’ defender with the licence to chase higher up the pitch.

The below image is a great example of the ‘roaming’ centre-back in action. 

Arsenal play to Xhaka between Saints’ bank of four midfielders and five defenders - in theory a dangerous position for the Swiss international to receive the ball.

But he’s quickly forced backwards as Valery charges out to meet him…

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The key in this passage of play is that despite Valery’s wandering, Saints still have a solid back four behind him.

Here’s another example of that, this time coming from Bednarek just before the half-time whistle…

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Once again, Arsenal look to play to a free midfielder - - Odegaard on this occasion - between the lines of Saints’ midfield and defence. But as with the previous example, he has no room to turn with Bednarek immediately at his back, protected by the covering Saints defenders behind him.

While it was usually Bednarek or Valery stepping out while Lyanco dropped deeper, the Brazilian got in on the fun as well with his two centre-back partners protecting him when he went on the occasional chase.

Here’s an example of that from the 72nd minute…

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Last week against Chelsea, as soon as any of the Saints defenders committed themselves, the Blues played right through them with Hasenhuttl’s side seemingly always stretched.

Against Arsenal, the back five almost gave them an extra player - one of the central defenders able to move into midfield with the knowledge that their fellow defenders were protecting them.

On each of the above occasions Arsenal were forced to pass backwards as the modified press worked to perfection.

Midfielders? Wingers? Full-backs?

Talent and concentration were no doubt crucial to Saints’ victory on Saturday but perhaps neither were more important than one other quality: effort.

And if we’re talking effort, no players personify the mammoth endeavour required moreso than Stuart Armstrong and Moi Elyounoussi.

We must say ‘attackers’ in inverted commas because they were that by name only. In reality, they were wide midfielders, central midfielders, full-backs and more.

“I think physically it was a very demanding position, definitely,” Hasenhuttl said of the two wide players after the win. 

But truly, that might be an understatement. Just take a look at the duo’s heat maps and try not to get exhausted vicariously…

Daily Echo: Stuart Armstrong's Heat Map vs Arsenal. Image by: WhoscoredStuart Armstrong's Heat Map vs Arsenal. Image by: Whoscored
Daily Echo: Moi Elyounoussi's Heat Map vs Arsenal. Image by: WhoscoredMoi Elyounoussi's Heat Map vs Arsenal. Image by: Whoscored

They started as right and left wingers but that was purely just a reflection of how they started. The way things played out, they just went wherever they were needed.

Take a look at this passage from Stuart Armstrong. 

Fraser Forster launches a goal-kick into Arsenal’s half and it’s headed down by Armando Broja into the vicinity of Perraud who has multiple Gunners around him. 

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Armstrong has shifted over from his right midfield position to help support the initial goal-kick but when Arsenal win it back, he (and four other Saints players) are out of position with Hasenhuttl’s side stretched - a rare circumstance on Saturday.

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Not to worry though as the entire Saints midfield sprints back into shape, with Armstrong moving into right centre midfield to help cover while Romeu moves out to the right flank.

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Arsenal end up getting crowded out in the box and Saints are able to clear.

Here’s a similar example but from Armstrong’s opposite number: Elyounoussi.

With Cedric on the ball, Saints are somewhat out of shape with Romeu pressing the highest of the Southampton midfielders. 

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But in an entire team performance defined by selflessness, Elyounoussi covers for the experienced Spaniard, shifting into the centre of midfield to ensure there’s no viable way for Arsenal to play through the middle of the pitch.

“For the nerves and for the manager outside, it’s not always nice to watch when the opponent is so often around the box but it’s a different way of defending and in some games it’s needed.”

In the moment, this was certainly not a fun watch for Hasenhuttl or Saints fans.

But the qualities shown to get over the line are hugely relieving and gratifying to see. Determination, grit, organisation - this was a performance filled with the tangible and intangible qualities needed to pull yourself up from the mud and thankfully it ended with the deserved reward - three points.

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