Better teams than Southampton will be exposed by the pace of Son Heung-min this season, so Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side can be forgiven for allowing a chance or two on the counter-attack against Tottenham Hotspur.
To let it happen again and again, though, to the extent that Son is able to score four of the exact same type of goal? That is far less understandable, and will not be so easily excused by the Southampton supporters.
Even Jermaine Jenas, usually one of television’s more composed co-commentators, was left aghast by the state of the defending at St Mary’s. “It makes no sense!” Jenas blurted as Son advanced to score his fourth of the game. “Oh my word.”
Southampton’s maniacal high line was comfortably the most egregious example of non-defending in the Premier League this weekend, but Hasenhuttl’s side were far from alone. Across the division in these opening two rounds of fixtures, goals have been conceded at a rate that will cause sleepless nights for managers and their defensive coaches.
So far this season there have been 62 goals in just 16 games, a rate of 3.88 goals per match. This is by some distance the highest goals-per-game ratio in a Premier League campaign, with the previous highest for a season being 2.82 in 2018/19.
Of course, there will be a natural correction as the season progresses. These are the earliest of early days, after all. But already there are enough signs to suggest that the strange external circumstances of this coronavirus-affected season are having a significant impact on matters on the field of play.
Is it any wonder that, following the shortest pre-season on record, teams do not look as drilled as they usually would at this time of year? It takes time to implement a system, to create a new style and, in the case of the promoted sides, to adapt to a new league.
Fulham and Leeds United have both conceded seven goals already, while West Bromwich Albion have shipped eight. In total, Leeds’ opening two games have seen 14 goals, the most for any top-flight’s first two matches since 1962.
In the case of Southampton, Hasenhuttl has used the off-season to impose a new high defensive line on his players. It is part of the club’s tactical evolution under the Austrian, who has written a “Southampton playbook” for his intensive, high-pressing style. Evidently, his players need more time to adapt to their manager’s demands.
It is certainly a risky time to try something new, from a tactical perspective. This is not just because of the lack of time on the training pitch, but also because many players are still working their way back to full fitness after such a short turnaround between seasons.
“Some players are still not 100 per cent fit,” said Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta after his side’s victory over West Ham United.
Fitness is especially vital for sides who are looking to press high up the pitch. Such a strategy only works if the team’s movement is synchronised, with each player fulfilling their role. If one player presses and another does not, the whole approach falls apart. Fitness levels must be high, and the whole team must be on the same wavelength.
Indeed it was not the high line that Hasenhuttl blamed for Southampton’s defensive meltdown, but the defensive efforts of the players higher up the pitch. “The high line was not a problem,” said Hasenhuttl. “We did not put enough pressure on the ball. We were too naive.”
Chelsea were also victims of a breakdown in their pressing game, with Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson allowed to turn in space and play the pass to Sadio Mane which resulted in Andreas Christensen’s red card. With two new signings at the top of the pitch in Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, Chelsea are not yet as coordinated as they need to be.
At the opposite end of the scale, Crystal Palace have shown in their opening two matches that there is nothing wrong with sticking to a more trusted approach. Unlike some of his managerial counterparts, Roy Hodgson has not chosen this condensed summer as the time to revolutionise Palace’s style of play.
In their victory against Manchester United, Palace were resolute and organised in their usual way. They denied United any space in behind and used their speed on the counter-attack to pose plenty of problems at the other end. It is a system they are used to, played by players who have been relentlessly drilled in how to execute it.
“We kept them playing in front of us and they could not profit from those spaces they are skilful enough to find,” said Hodgson. “We were concerned about them getting behind our back four, which they did not do.”
In the long-term, it is fair to question how far these methods can take a side like Palace. The new approaches are more risky, as Southampton learned to their cost, but perhaps there will be reward further down the line. In the meantime, as evolving teams still get to grips with their off-season tweaks, we should expect to see more defensive lapses, and more goals flying in.