Southampton set for playoff second leg push against West Brom

Southampton prioritised a clean sheet in the first leg of their Championship Playoff and got it. It’s time to let the handbrake off if they are to make it to the Final at Wembley.

As the final whistle blew on a nervy 90 minutes between West Bromwich Albion and Southampton at The Hawthorns on Sunday afternoon, the overriding sense was of having watched a dress rehearsal for the main event at St. Mary’s.

Southampton desperately wanted to avoid defeat in the first leg – understandably so, and it showed, as they knocked the ball around patiently, dominating possession, without ever threatening to open up a solid West Brom side – one that posed a serious threat in behind on the break throughout the game.

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Saints’ patchy end-of-season form – and the large number of goals conceded during this period, as their ultimately unsuccessful bid for automatic promotion fell apart, meant that defensive solidity, structure, and a clean sheet were the order of the day for the first leg. Job done on that front then, but Russell Martin’s side now needs to prioritise the fluid, attacking football that has been their hallmark throughout the season and find the bravery on and off the ball that their manager so often speaks of.

Switching back to Martin’s preferred 4-3-3 formation for Friday night’s all-important second leg would be an obvious place to start in the pursuit of a more progressive, penetrating performance and would allow Saints to incorporate another forward player – most likely David Brooks or Ryan Fraser, into their line-up.

Attacking width was a sorely missed ingredient in the first-leg display and meant Saints struggled to regularly progress the ball through midfield and into the forward line, in the manner that viewers of the side have become accustomed to this season.

The rumoured return of Ché Adams would be a well-needed fillip for Saints. For all the criticism he has received over the years, his strong end-of-season form and run of goals served as a timely reminder of his effectiveness, and his excellent partnership with the league’s leading goal contributor, Adam Armstrong, who has 21 goals and 13 assists this season, is a major reason Southampton still have a chance of promotion.

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Southampton manager, Russell Martin spoke this week about the need to play with ‘energy, intensity and aggression, and to give the supporters something to rally behind’ in the second leg. A fast start to the game feels crucial to give Saints a chance to assert their authority on proceedings and settle any jitters among the home crowd.

With uncertainty surrounding the futures of several of Saints’ most high-profile players this summer, including Ché Adams, Stuart Armstrong, and Flynn Downes, the off-season break is likely to be another one of change and flux. If Martin can get the balance right between defensive solidity and attacking flair on Friday, Southampton have a great chance of getting to Wembley and setting up a dramatic shoot-out for the Premier League.

The Author

George Cochran

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