EFL Cup Final Preview

Claude Puel is aiming to win his first trophy as a manager and bring Southampton only its second piece of silverware in 40 years, as his side take on Manchester United in the EFL Cup final on Sunday.

In 2010, I was fortunate to play a part in what was then Saints’ first trophy win since 1976, as I helped a resurgent Southampton side defeat Carlisle in another three lettered cup, the JPT or Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Little did I know this Cup win would be the beginning of an incredible rise through the divisions that saw Southampton return to The Premier League and with it, launch the careers of the likes of Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, and EURO 2016 winner Jose Fonte.

Southampton are now an established Premier League side, and with these players now gone and replaced with new heroes such as Manolo Gabbiadini, Dusan Tadic and Virgil Van Dijk, the Saints continue to march on, regardless of who dons the red and white stripes.

Gabbiadini has scored three goals since joining from Napoli for £14m and the 25- year-old was outstanding against Sunderland in the Saints recent 0-4 win, which saw Puel’s men cement their place just outside the top 10.

His arrival though, came at an important point in the Saints season as the effects of competing on so many fronts saw the Saints form slump.

After being knocked out of the Europa League by Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva, a heavy loss to Arsenal in The FA Cup followed.

Successive league defeats against Swansea and West Ham saw the Saints slide down the table as they started to look nervously over their shoulder.

However, their convincing victory over Sunderland will have given them a much needed boost, ahead of a far stronger opponent than the Carlisle United side the Saints faced the last time they went to Wembley.

With Virgil Van Dijk missing through injury, Martin Caceres looks set to provide cover after signing as a free agent.

However, Cecares hasn’t made a competitive start since last February after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon, whilst playing for Juventus, therefore Saints look vulnerable in the centre of defence.

Mourinho to rain on Puel parade

After Manchester City’s victory over Liverpool in last year’s final, United will be desperate to keep the trophy in Manchester.

To do so, they will look to in-form forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic who scored four goals in the four domestic cup finals he played with previous club Paris Saint Germain.

After scoring a hat-trick against Saint Etienne in the first leg of the last 32 in the Europa League, the Swede is assured of a place in the starting line up, however, Henrikh Mkhitaryan looks doubtful after limping off in their 0-1 second leg victory, in which he scored the winner.

His injury may open the door for Wayne Rooney, who could feature after confirming he is staying at the Red Devils following reported interest from China.

If a victory would be a personal boost for Saints manager Puel, then for United it would also provide Jose Mourinho with a trophy in his first season in the famous Old Trafford  dugout, a feat no other United  manager has achieved.

I feel he will do so, thus adding to the three League Cup wins he enjoyed at Chelsea, which will leave Puel still searching for that first elusive trophy.

 

West Ham v West Brom

 

West Brom enter this game in 8th position, a magnificent achievement considering they have only taken 7 points from a possible 36 away from home.

A fine win last weekend against Stoke will see the Baggies in bullish mood, although they are stretched in terms of squad depth and quality.

Tony Pulis, the West Brom manager, has been vocal in his concern over the need for signings.

The sale of Saido Berhino saw Jake Livermore arrive, in a one-in, one-out move, but it is goalscorers he needs, not midfielders.

They are too reliant on the likes of James Morrison, who seems in the form of his life, and their lack of possession away from home, typically around the 30-40% mark, is one possible reason for their tendency to concede late goals as the players tire from chasing the ball.

Solomon Rondon is their top scorer but hasn’t scored since netting a hat-trick against Swansea in mid December and despite his quality, I feel Pulis may freshen things up and bring Hal Robson Kanu in to spearhead the attack.

They did beat Southampton away on New Years Eve, and in Nacer Chadli and Matt Phillips have two terrific footballers who will have to be well shackled and this West Brom side has enough quality that they could cause West Ham problems.

Nyom nowhere

Allan Nyom recently declared he was happy to have missed the Cameroon national team’s African Cup of Nations victory, and I feel they may have been pleased too.

Defensively, I feel he is one of the Baggies weakest links; he is slow to close the ball down, he cannot change direction when defending due to the nature of how he defends with his arms behind his back, and he rarely blocks any balls into the box.

Against Stoke, the Potters had a field day down the Baggies right flank as Nyom and Matt Phillips struggled to stem the tide of attacks, and only desperate defending inside the box prevented a goal against.

For West Ham, I would expect them to throw the ball continuously down the weaker West Brom side, away from the likes of Chris Brunt and Nacer Chadli on the left, and then its up to Carroll et al to get on the end of the ball in the box.

Blunt Brunt

Chadli attracts two players which means his full back is often free for a set back

To prevent the likes of Robson-Kanu and Rondon scoring, you have to cut the supply, and despite playing as a left back since Nacer Chadli’s arrival, Chris Brunt has the quality to hurt teams if he is given time and space.

The Northern Irishman scored a cracker against Sunderland, picking up a second ball that fell outside the box, and he has been in fine form since his return from a serious knee injury which saw him miss EURO 2016.

In the Baggies formation, the attacking threat comes from the midfield getting up to support the front man or from getting the ball wide and delivering into the box for the likes of Rondon.

If you sit off Brunt he can punish you and Rondon’s three goals against Swansea could serve as a warning to West Ham that they will need to be full of energy to close the ball down when their more technical players are in possession.

With Brunt supporting the play from behind in his new deeper role as a full back, the danger for West Ham is they double up on Chadli as he is such a handful, which leaves Brunt free and he cannot be afforded the same time and space as Swansea did earlier in the season.

Southampton v West Ham

Saints Struggles

With Virgil Van Dijk injured and Jose Fonte now at the Hammers, the heart of the West Ham defence has been ripped out and in its place a young Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida have struggled badly.

Against Arsenal in the FA Cup, Stephens was at fault in some part for nearly every goal,with the Arsenal play around the box far too quick for him to deal with.

 

West Ham need to Watch Out Wide

The main danger for me is how well Southampton attack wide. The relationship between the full back and winger on both sides is fantastic.

At times when a winger moves infield this is the trigger for the full back to overlap, as you can see blow.

 

Carroll to do a Deeney

Against Arsenal on Tuesday night Troy Deeney put himself up against the weak link in the Arsenal back line, Shkodran Mustafi, who just could not deal with him.

I expect Andy Carroll to go up against Stephens although Yoshida is also vulnerable, I believe Carroll could expose either equally well and my guess is he will seek out Stephens.

Then it’s a question of winning the second ball. This is not careless long ball tactics, this is utilising the strengths you have against the opponents weakness’ and in the Saints centre of defence, there is a big weakness to expose.

I would imagine Southampton may be better organised than Arsenal against Carroll and sit Romeu in front.

If they do, that will create more space for the West Ham midfield to get on the ball and if they don’t, I expect Carroll to have a field day.

However, if the winger keeps his width, both full backs intelligently recognise to attack on the inside as Saints right back Cedric Soares does here, against a Leicester City side that were run ragged at Saints last league home game.

Arsenal v Watford

Hurelho Gomes jumps for joy; credits 101 great goals.com

Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes suffered a huge blow with a shock home defeat as Watford secured their first top-flight win over the Gunners since 1988.

Former Tottenham defender Younes Kaboul lashed in the opener within 10 minutes for Watford with a shot from outside the area which deflected off Aaron Ramsey.

Just two minutes and 57 seconds later, the visitors doubled their lead as Troy Deeney tapped in the rebound after Etienne Capoue’s fine run ended with his shot being saved by Petr Cech.

The Arsenal goalkeeper was called into action again as he tipped Sebastian Prodl’s header over the crossbar and pushed away Daryl Janmaat’s curling strike.

The hosts improved significantly in the second half and Alex Iwobi pulled a goal back by steering Alexis Sanchez’s cross home.

Lucas Perez struck the crossbar with a powerful drive, but they could not find the equaliser.

Gunners failed to fire

Arsenal here lack width and depth with full backs and midfielders too compact in possession

Arsene Wenger chose a much changed team after the demolition of Southampton in The FA Cup, which may not have been much of a surprise, however his tactics were.

Lining up in a 4-2-3-1 with Oliver Giroud as a lone striker supported by Ozil behind, the two pivots and cautious nature of their play seemed to play into Watford’s hands.

I cannot see why Arsenal need to play with two pivots, and a more expansive 4-3-3 would surely serve Arsenal better?

All the pace and penetration on show at St Mary’s a few days ago had been taken out of the team with Giroud and Ozil rarely penetrating beyond the Watford defence.

The pace out wide against the Saints provided by full backs Hector Bellerin and Keiran Gibbs was much missed.

Watford’s back three played a high line to begin, with Arsenal posing little threat through the middle.

The hornets were able to be very aggressive in the early exchanges and Oliver Giroud was largely anonymous, in contrast to the effective Troy Deeney.

With no threat centrally I expected Arsenal to attack wide, however, their full backs were never advanced enough, allowing the Watford midfield to crowd around the Arsenal players when they did receive.

The Ox is no Carthorse

Alex Iwobi takes on his man as Oxlade-Chamberlain watches on.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain began the game on the bench, despite a scintillating display against his old club Southampton in the FA Cup match on Saturday, although how Arsene Wenger is utilising his talents is puzzling to me.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is an out and out winger and it was his displays for Southampton out wide that convinced Arsene Wenger to shell out £15m for his talents originally.

The Ox made his debut whilst with me at Southampton and he was always destined for the top with his wonderful talents, although I can’t help but feel that he has spent large parts of his career at Arsenal playing in the wrong position.

The Ox is being used presently as a supplier, someone who feeds others and supports behind the ball in a role many players could manage but not many have his talents when he has the ball wide, in space and is running at people.

Against Southampton and Watford he rarely received ahead of the ball, got turned or ran at defenders, all traits you would associate with his talents.

Against a weak Southampton side his range of passing was imperious but against a much better Watford team, his skills were needed higher up the pitch to break down a well organised defence.

Often, Arsenal’s most attacking threat came from their full backs but who would you rather receive in the final third, Gabriel or Oxlade-Chamberlain?

Gabriel cannot go past a player the way the Ox can and in games such as these, that Arsenal need to win, a change was needed.

I think at half-time or when Ramsay was forced off injured, Wenger could have sacrificed a midfielder and played 4-4-2 with Oxlade-Chamberlain positioned out wide in a full back or wide position, to supply a front two of Oliver Giroud and Alexis Sanchez.

The Ox is more than capable of playing two games in succession and you have to remember being a player who sits and serves, is vastly different physically, to one who attacks up and down the wings for 90 minutes.

He would have barely broke a sweat against the Saints and could have started this game to provide more penetration where Arsenal needed it most, in the final third.

Arsenal fail to cope with Troy Deeney


Deeney wins another flick on, with Arsenal providing no screen in front and Watford’s M’Baye Niang is ready to pick up the second ball

One thing Arsene Wenger would have known from Watford’s much changed team against Millwall in the FA Cup Fourth Round tie, was that Troy Deeney would start, so there can be no excuses for how they failed to neutralise his strengths.

From the first kick by Heurelho Gomes, it was clear Troy Deeney was going to position himself against the weaker of the two Arsenal centre backs, Shkodran Mustafi.

Gomes is not renowned for his kicking and his kicks are often punted high with height, which would help Arsenal in trying to screen Deeney in front.

Once it appeared Watford weren’t going to play out, Ramsay or Coquelin could have quickly retreated to screen in front of Deeney, although not once did Arsenal show any inkling to do this to prevent Watford winning the first ball up.

Once Deeney challenged for the ball, Watford had runners going in behind for the second ball and this theme continued until the second half.

At 1-2 up Watford seemed to abandon this idea to adopt a more defensive approach, where they did not commit any players beyond Deeney.

Wide players need work

Arsenal again failed to prevent balls into the box, like the Southampton game previously, and the Arsenal wingers need to improve their defensive skills.

Against Southampton in their previous match, the only time Arsenal looked in trouble out of possession was when their wide players were tasked with defending the ball.

Danny Welbeck in that game was especially slow to press the full back Cuco Martino, who was able to deliver too many crosses into the Arsenal box.

Although, as Southampton only had one up front the threat was minimal, against this giant Watford side however, any ball allowed into the box was a danger.

For Arsenal to tighten up at the back they need wingers who are willing and able to defend, particularly against sides that play in a more direct fashion or with two strikers, for example.

What next?

Arsenal face a crucial trip to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday (kick-off 12:30 GMT), while Watford host Burnley the same day at 15:00 GMT.