Why Southampton could face a harsh Premier League wake up call under Russell Martin

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Southampton’s promotion will throw Russell Martin’s passing philosophy into the spotlight - so will his strategy stack up in the top flight?

Russell Martin’s brand of football has always been slightly divisive – and now it will be broadcast to a much wider audience than ever before after his Southampton side earned promotion to the Premier League after beating Leeds United in the Championship play-off final. If it all works out, then the 38-year-old manager will no doubt be praised to the rafters. If they struggle, then he will come under fire. All we can be certain of, right now, is that Martin won’t compromise his methods.

He's said as much himself, telling the media after the win at Wembley that "The style is something that myself and my players believe in, I won't change and I love what I do. We'll need to embrace the challenge without losing who we are."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The style in question is an extremely possession-heavy ideology which is somewhat redolent of tiki-taka. Martin’s sides generally haven’t played the passing game with quite so much flair as, say, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, but then again that is perhaps understandable given that his previous jobs in management were with Milton Keynes Dons and Swansea City. Neither had access to Andrès Iniesta.

It was at MK Dons that his side broke the EFL record for the longest unbroken string of passes leading to a goal with 56, but he has been criticised for a style which can be slow and appear to consist of possession for its own sake. Martin would prefer his side play low-risk ‘keep-ball’ football rather than trying to overextend in the hope of breaking the opposing line, and that’s where much of the criticism comes from – at a low ebb, his sides can appear a little lumbering, a little lacking in attacking drive.

"People… react to that and say it's boring, but everyone has a different opinion,” he said after that 56-pass goal. “The more we have the ball, the more we can control the game and take the fight out of opposition teams. It's a 90-minute game plan to try and dominate the ball."

Clearly, it’s been effective at Southampton, where he has achieved promotion at the first attempt after being appointed in June of last year. Martin typically lines the Saints up either a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 system, with two highly aggressive wing-backs stretching play out on the flanks, one holding midfielder (Flynn Downes, in the play-off final) and two more adventurous midfielders looking for space up-field and either side of the anchor man (Joe Aribo and Will Smallbone in this case). It’s much the same methods as he used in his previous postings, but the first time they have resulted in promotion or a win percentage north of 40%.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The question is less about whether it worked this season, as it plainly did, but whether it will be so effective in the top flight. There is already a large gap between the two tiers at the top of the English game, one which all three promoted side from last year failed to bridge. Can Southampton do it with Martin’s passing philosophy, or will they come to regret the failure to adopt a more ‘pragmatic’ approach?

The first ten minutes or so from Sunday’s 1-0 win over Leeds suggested that Southampton may have an uphill battle to stay up next season, although clearly that can be said of most promoted sides. The normally pass-happy back line gave the ball away repeatedly under pressure from the Leeds forwards and found themselves shaken and struggling to maintain shape and composure. They survived the early storm in the end, but you couldn’t help but wonder how far behind they would have been had the opposition been Arsenal, for argument’s sake. Leeds lacked ruthlessness and precision when given that flurry of chances at Wembley, but few Premier League sides will be so forgiving.

That shaky start probably did Martin’s methods a disservice, and they are not normally so uncomfortable playing the ball around their own area. The side who played more passes than any other team in the Championship (by a distance of almost 2,500 passing attempts), they also had more touches of the ball inside their own defensive third than all but five teams in the league – despite which, they gave up fewer touches to opposing players in that defensive third than any other team. In other words, they pass the ball in front of their own goal a lot, but usually do so without giving the ball away.

But because they spend so much time with the ball close to their own goal and without a large number of players necessarily back to help the defence out, when they do make a mistake it can be pretty catastrophic and that has happened on several occasions. And given that Premier League sides will inevitably force and seize upon mistakes more than those in the second tier, there will almost certainly be some bad goals conceded next season which will put pressure on the side, their manager and his methods. Martin’s sides concede more goals which look bad on the highlights reel than most teams do, and that can’t help but shape public perception even when it isn’t necessarily fair.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

They’re also vulnerable to counter-attacks, partly because they press hard and high up the pitch, often with the wide areas exposed by their aggressive wing-back play. Direct passes in behind and down the flanks have been a regular source of problems and again, those may well be exploited more effectively next year. Full-backs like Kyle Walker-Peters and Ryan Manning have offered plenty going forward but have not provided as much protection at the back as will be required against top-flight attacks. Southampton conceded 63 goals in the regular season in the end – 20 more than Leeds, who finished one place higher, and more than four teams that finished in the bottom half of the table. Martin’s methods of exerting control also come with drawbacks.

Of course, they also scored plenty of goals as a consequence of the same tactics, and only automatically-promoted Leicester City and Ipswich Town notched more up across the course of the campaign. If they are to succeed in avoiding relegation next season they will need to keep that kind of attacking success up, but that’s a challenge for any newly-promoted side simply because of player quality. Their leading scorer this year, for instance, was Adam Armstrong, who has flourished in the Championship with both Southampton and Blackburn Rovers but who struggled to make an impact in the Premier League last season. They will likely need to make some smart signings up front.

And the same will be true at the back. Taylor Harwood-Bellis, who was arguably Southampton’s most impressive defender, should at least return due to a buy clause in the deal which took him to St. Mary’s from Manchester City, while Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens will offer plenty of crucial experience but were also part of the side that were relegated a little over a year ago when they shipped 73 goals. There is an obvious and understandable concern that the quality gap will prove tough enough as it is without a playing style that will inevitably throw it into sharp focus at times.

Then again, plenty of promoted teams have tried to be ultra-pragmatic and play less expansive football and few have ultimately succeeded. The gulf between the two leagues could easily prove overwhelming regardless of Martin’s system. But there are apparent weaknesses and this will be the biggest test yet of a vision of possession-first football that sees him take the concept further than almost any other manager in the European game right now. Some will adore it, others will be frustrated by it, but the results will be fascinating - and Martin has proven plenty of people wrong getting this far.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.