Tactical Watch: Keys to victory

By SFC Media time Tue 26 Feb Saints v Fulham
Photo by Matt Watson | Southampton FC

Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe takes a look at Fulham ahead of Southampton's Premier League meeting with them at St Mary's on Wednesday night...

Wednesday sees Southampton welcome Fulham to St Mary’s Stadium in what could prove to be a pivotal game this Premier League season.

Seven points currently separate the two sides in the table, so a Saints win would put a ten-point buffer between themselves and 19th, narrowing their focus all the more in their quest for safety.

Fulham have lost seven of their last eight games and conceded at least two goals in every single one of them, meaning there’s joy to be had for Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men if they get a select few things right.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 19: Ralph Hasenhuttl during the Premier League match between Southampton FC and Everton FC at St Mary's Stadium on January 19, 2019 in Southampton, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images)
The Saints boss celebrates at St Mary's

Pressing with success

Fulham started well against West Ham last Friday and took a deserved lead through Ryan Babel early on. With belief coursing through them, the winds looked like they might have changed...until the old Fulham reared its unwelcome head.

Misplaced passes in dangerous areas, primarily involving centre-backs on the halfway line, began to litter their play. It’s a familiar story to fans who have watched gameplans break down regularly this season...and it led to a familiar result.

Fulham are playing with fear, and when you press players who aren’t confident they make mistakes. Southampton have begun to press quite well and quite cohesively thanks to Hasenhüttl’s tutelage, and it stands to reason they can force mistakes and take advantage of them on Wednesday.

Attack the flanks

Fulham’s defensive issues are myriad, the number of players Claudio Ranieri has tried along the line indicative of their uncertainty, with leaks springing in every conceivable area. One position has troubled more than most, though: right-back, or right-wing-back depending on the formation.

Slated to play there against the Saints is Denis Odoi, who has found his way into most XIs this season despite continued poor form. A series of left-wingers have troubled him deeply since August, with Anthony Martial and Felipe Anderson spinning him round and round of late.

There’s no doubt Odoi’s lacking confidence, so his area is one Southampton would be wise to target. Beating him and opening space for a cross would open up another Fulham weakness too: the fact they struggle immensely to deal with crosses or balls into the box.

The defenders struggle to win their duels – evidenced by all three of West Ham’s goals being headers on Friday – and goalkeeper Sergio Rico attempts to punch too many balls, often heaping pressure on his own side.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Ryan Babel of Fulham (c) celebrates scoring his side's first goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Fulham FC at the London Stadium on February 22, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Ryan Babel celebrates after scoring at West Ham

Stand up physically

Fulham have become a more direct side under Ranieri, and it’s Babel’s forceful runs with and without the ball that really epitomise the difference between this side the one Slaviša Jokanović led.

Babel and Aleksandar Mitrović as a front two can be quite the handful, and if they start to gain confidence they’ll become even harder to deal with. Peculiarly, the more angry Mitrović gets, the more likely it seems he’ll score.

Babel will run the channels where possible, likely hitting the space between Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens. Mitrović will back into any defender he can find, roaming across the pitch and trying his luck against each.

If Saints can stand up tall against Mitrović and prevent Babel from gaining steam, they’ll be halfway to a clean sheet. Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney are good footballers who do offer something in support, but they’re not players to count on given their inconsistent form this season.

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