Premier League

Southampton Touch Down With January ‘Hail Mary’

 • by Blair Newman
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Only time will tell if Southampton’s decision to stand by their manager, Mauricio Pellegrino, is brave or stupid.

Brought in after a 2016/17 season defined by stylistic concerns regarding Claude Puel’s tactics, the Argentine boss has so far endured a difficult debut Premier League campaign.

His side sit 18th in the table. It’s an uncomfortable position for a club that, in recent times, has become used to top-half finishes. With a relegation dogfight on the horizon, their decision to spend around £19million on Guido Carrillo in January was a transfer market Hail Mary. But, while it’s still early days for the striker, he appears to be making a positive impact.

The player’s arrival hasn’t prompted a change of formation. Rather, Pellegrino has simply placed Carrillo at the top of his favoured 4-2-3-1 shape. The former Monaco hitman has made five appearances in all competitions since joining and has yet to find the net, but his all-round play in the line-leading role has drawn praise from his manager.

Speaking to the Southern Daily Echo, Pellegrino said: “He’s adapting well, working well and now in some movements he has to improve the connections with some teammates. He’s fighting, working with energy.

“It’s not too easy as most games have been away and Liverpool at home but little by little he will improve like the team. Every player needs context for good performance individually and he will show his capacity. I think he will give and is giving us something we didn’t have.”

The high point of Carrillo’s short Saints career thus far came during the away win over West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup fifth round. On a counter-attack he received a ball over the top in the left inside channel. Looking up, he played an immediate lofted pass into the path of Dusan Tadić, who finished with aplomb.

That move was one example of what Carrillo has been brought in to provide. His goals record may not inspire – he has only hit double figures in a single season once, with Estudiantes in his home country four years ago – but finishing chances is not his only responsibility atop the Southampton attack.

While he has the bulky frame of a conventional centre-forward, his movements are anything but. The 26-year-old is tasked with occupying defensive lines, moving laterally and dropping deep to drag markers with him and disrupt the opposition’s shape.

Those behind him, namely Tadić, Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse, are the ones who benefit most from his selflessness – in stretching opposition back lines, he aims to create space for the attacking midfield trio.

Southampton forward Guido Carrillo in action v West Brom

Another of Carrillo’s main attacking assets is his aerial ability. Standing at 6ft 2ins, he is a tall and powerful presence capable of winning flick-ons or knock-downs. He can also compete physically with defenders with his back to goal, holding off markers and retaining possession until his team-mates can support him. From there, he often looks to play backwards or sideways passes to enable progression of the attack, as seen above.

His direct and physical brand of attacking isn’t the only thing he brings to the tactical table, however. Carrillo is also an attentive defender, shuttling between the opposition’s centre-backs and applying pressure to reduce their time on the ball and disrupt their build-up.

Southampton forward Guido Carrillo in action v West Brom

An example of this can be seen above where, leading the press against West Brom, he adjusts his body position to form a cover shadow on Manchester City transfer target Jonny Evans’ central defensive partner, forcing Evans to play into a congested midfield area.

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Southampton are the best of the rest in the Premier League when it comes to keeping the ball. Their average possession this season stands at 52.4 per cent, a percentage only topped by the established top six of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. However, they have struggled to turn their dominance of the ball into goals.

Having found the net just 28 times in 27 league games, Pellegrino’s side have arguably been just as staid as Puel’s version last term, only less effective. This is perhaps what prompted the January addition of Carrillo up front, which seems to have come hand-in-hand with a change of playing style.

Since the striker signed, Southampton have taken a more direct route to attacking. On average in the Premier League this season, they have hit 66 long balls per game. But, in the three games Carrillo has started, they have hit 73, 74 and 83 long balls (that’s an average of 77 per game). In this respect, the team is playing to their new striker’s strengths – so far he has won 5.6 aerial duels per 90 minutes, a higher tally than any of his striking peers.

He may not be as adept a finisher as the club’s top scorer Charlie Austin, though Pellegrino seems well aware of this already. “Maybe Charlie is quicker…in the box,” he said. “But outside the box he’s a different option and we have to work out what to do when Guido goes deep and when he’s in the box to give him more time.”

Southampton are changing their attacking game to suit Carrillo, and the early signs are that he will pay them back. If his all-round play increases the effectiveness of their possession and maximises the attacking threat of Tadić, Redmond and Ward-Prowse, his signing could help keep the club in the Premier League.

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