ST. MARY’S STADIUM, SOUTHAMPTON—Southampton opened their 2016-17 season with a stuttering 1-1 draw at home to Watford on Saturday in a game where teething issues reigned supreme. Both sides employed new managers over the summer, with Southampton hiring Claude Puel and Watford bringing in Walter Mazzarri. They in turn have employed new playing systems since coming aboard, which led to a strange game in which play frequently shifted from free-flowing to stodgy in an instant.
The hosts in particular struggled in the first half, with the likes of Cedric Soares, James Ward-Prowse, Dusan Tadic and Oriol Romeu passing sloppily. The middle third quickly became an area of torment for the Saints, as Watford preyed on errors and Etienne Capoue in particular impressed with his positioning and movement.
Only Virgil van Dijk, Southampton’s pillar of excellence in defence, put in a consistent showing. His long, rangy legs completed a series of key tackles, preventing the Hornets’ striking duo of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney from putting the game out of sight early on.
But in the second half things took a turn for the better for the Saints, and in particular Nathan Redmond graduated from non-factor to key threat in attack. He started picking his pockets of space much more wisely, and early in the second period Southampton found him between the lines three times in as many minutes to spark deadly counters.
In all, the second half seemed much more a “Puel performance.” It was the sort of display OGC Nice fans became accustomed to seeing last season under his tutelage in Ligue 1, with thrust and incisiveness visible in the final third. The introduction of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg also helped settle the midfield, with his 100 percent pass accuracy, per WhoScored.com, setting the tone for a dominant final 30 minutes against 10 men.
Asked in the press conference why the first and second halves were so different, Puel struggled for answers: “I don’t know [why they played worse]. It is the first game in front of our fans; it’s a little difficult. [At half-time] I speak with all my players. It was a collective problem. Not just one or two players. It was important to find our play and play football.”
As Southampton continue to adjust to Puel’s new formation—a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond—performances will get better and better. While in pre-season the players looked like they were grasping it, the first half proved that against competitive, physical opposition, there’s still work to be done.
One thing Puel did stress in the post-match press conference was that in the first half, he felt there was “no possibility” for his players on the ball. That was very much evident in the play of Cedric and Co., who would frequently look up and see no red-and-white shirts open, then proceed to punt it forward aimlessly.
Changing formations brings about a set of alterations with regard to natural player positions, and in turn passing options and lanes change. It was hoped that Saints would have worked through the kinks during the summer tour and would be ready and firing come the opening day, but there’s still work to be done.
Southampton have the players to pull off the diamond superbly, but they’re clearly behind schedule.