Southampton moved up to third in the Premier League with a thoroughly deserved 2-0 victory over hapless Fulham at St Mary's. Saturday Night Football saw Saints blow away the visitors in a high-tempo first half as Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez combined for a goal apiece to effectively end the game as a contest before the break.
Fulham could not cope with Southampton's much-praised pressing style and Darren Bent was left isolated in attack as the visitors failed to create a single opening. Here we use Opta data to highlight those points and more in an in-depth look at the match...
Mauricio Pochettino made two changes to the team that snatched a late draw at Manchester United last time out. Lambert replaced Dani Osvaldo in the lone striker role with James Ward-Prowse coming into the midfield in place of Steven Davis. Both Osvaldo and Davis were unavailable through injury and omitted from the squad.
That meant Southampton started in a 4-5-1 formation with Rodriguez and Adam Lallana playing in support of Lambert - interchanging to provide the width and ably supported by the full-back duo of Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne.
Fulham made one enforced change from the starting line-up against Crystal Palace on Monday evening with Fernando Amorebieta replacing the injured Brede Hangeland, as he did during the game at Selhurst Park. This was the Venezuela international's fourth start for the club and his third in his preferred centre-back position.
Elsewhere, Bent and Dimitar Berbatov were paired in a loose 4-4-2 with the Bulgarian often dropping deep alongside Pajtim Kasami and Bryan Ruiz in the support roles. Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker were then asked to hold the midfield together against the Saints trio. "The aim is to not concede when you're away from home," Martin Jol told Sky Sports before the game.
Where it was won and lost
"The problem comes if Parker and Sidwell start losing the ball in their own half," said Jamie Redknapp in the Sky Sports studio in the build-up to kick-off. "If you try and play short passes in midfield against Southampton, you are playing into their hands. Then the crowd are up early on and you're under pressure." As it turned out, the game was won by the home side in the first half.
As early as the fifth minute, the problems facing Fulham were clearly flagged up. Maarten Stekelenburg attempted a short pass to Philippe Senderos but Lallana was onto the Swiss centre-back so quickly, robbing him of possession. The ball came out to Schneiderlin but his side-footed effort was cleared from near the goal-line.
"Their tempo is too much for Fulham," said Davie Provan on co-commentary, as the visitors' ageing team - an average of five years older than their opponents - struggled to deal with the Southampton press. That Senderos error was not an isolated incident. Fulham were dispossessed four times in their own half in the opening 45 minutes as Saints harried them mercilessly.
Even the defenders joined the attacks. Ruiz frequently allowed Shaw the freedom of the flank as he seemed content to expect Sidwell and Parker to deal with the threat. "Fulham have definitely got a problem on that side with the full-back getting beyond Ruiz," said Provan. Shaw's average position showed that he was the fourth most advanced Southampton player before the break and after 35 minutes he had created more chances from open play than any other player on the pitch.
While the home team succeeded in carving their opponents open, the breakthrough actually came from a set-piece. Parker's instructions for Berbatov to mark Lambert at the corner were swiftly forgotten as the England striker drifted away from the Fulham man's attentions and latched onto a Rodriguez flick-on to head past Sascha Riether on the line from close range.
While Berbatov failed to do his duties in defence, he offered little at the other end either. It was not until the 58th minute of the match that he supplied Bent with his second pass of the game. Indeed, Bent received the ball just four times in the first half an hour and one of those passes came from goalkeeper Stekelenburg. Southampton dominated the attempts at goal by 14 to nil, with Fulham failing to even create a chance. It is a damning statistic but not a misleading one.
Frustratingly for Fulham fans, despite their strikers' shared reputation for a languid approach to the game, it is difficult to see what more Bent and Berbatov could do without support. As Provan pointed out on the hour mark: "They are making an effort to close the ball down but if they're not being backed up then they're wasting their time."
Redknapp also highlighted the contrast at the interval. "We've seen one team playing off the cuff and another team that is so disciplined, with work-rate as good as I've seen from a Premier League team in a long time," he said. "They have smothered and strangled Fulham at every opportunity."
Despite boasting the best defence in the Premier League, Pochettino's side have actually struggled for fluency at times so far this season with the Lambert and Osvaldo partnership not always clicking. In the absence of the Italy international, Lambert looked to be back to his best - thriving with the space around him and attacking midfielders buzzing in support.
First he hit the post and then drew a save from Stekelenburg following a trademark move in which he drifted to the far post to head at goal on the diagonal. On that occasion, Lambert should have squared the ball for Rodriquez but he did not make the same mistake twice - setting up the Saints No.9 to head home from close range in the latter stages of the first half.
While Osvaldo is a player of undoubted quality, Southampton look a more effective proposition when the likes of Rodriguez and Lallana are free to burst forward in support and it was the hard-working efforts of the former Burnley player that caught the eye here. Pochettino has a decision to make regarding whether to return to the Lambert-Osvaldo partnership or opt to rotate his strikers in future.
It is, as they say, a nice problem to have - and one the Argentine coach can mull over from a position of strength. Jol's problems are both imminent and significant. Fulham look to be a team without a cohesive strategy. In essence, they are a broken team with six players providing a platform and four men doing their own thing in the hope of making something happen.
When it comes off, as it did so spectacularly against Crystal Palace on Monday evening, then Jol can sit back and take the plaudits. After a performance like this one, it felt like he was sending his players out onto the pitch without a plan. And against this Southampton side, that's a sure-fire way to guarantee a defeat right now.
|Southampton v Fulham - Chances created|
"It's all about the players in the dressing room. They fully deserve all the plaudits today. They put in a great performance so I just want to congratulate them for an amazing effort today and in the training sessions. They always put in 100 per cent. It's not just about the win, it's about how the win was achieved - we played really good football. It's all about the collective work in recovering the ball to win possession back. When we lose possession we work like crazy to win the ball back."
"The only positive is that we kept it at 2-0 because in the first half it looked like it could be four or five. In the second half, the organisation and shape was a bit better but we couldn't play it through to Berbatov or to Bent down the flanks like we did against Crystal Palace. Southampton are very strong, athletic and aggressive. You have to match them and if you don't then you will lose these games. The most disappointing thing is that we didn't create anything ourselves."
"I thought Southampton were fantastic. It's a European style of play with an English blend - there were six English players in that team. If they keep developing like that, one or two of those could be the future of English football. That's the type of football we see in the Champions League. As Gary Neville said on Monday Night Football, it's an exceptional team. Pochettino deserves a lot of credit because he's got a great work ethic with that team. He's got players playing football that some of them probably didn't think they were capable of playing. It's an exciting brand of football that's a real joy to watch."
"There's no secret," Rodriguez told Sky Sports after the game. "It's what we've worked on from day one. The training is extremely hard but the lads have taken to it and it's working for us. The gaffer works with us in the week and I don't think we're going to change anything. There's no limit to what we can achieve." The Southampton forward was the stand-out player as he set up the first and scored the second for his side in a hard-working performance that typified his team.