Southampton travel to Bramall Lane this Saturday to take on a Sheffield United side who have made a wonderful start to life back in the Premier League.
Chris Wilder’s side have taken five points from their first four games, including a win over Crystal Palace and a spirited fightback against Chelsea to snatch a 2-2 draw late on at Stamford Bridge having been 2-0 down.
The likes of Callum Robinson and John Lundstram have impressed, having already scored this term, although there is one unsung hero who Saints midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg must keep under wraps.
Oliver Norwood. The Blades string-puller sits in the middle of the park and helps Wilder’s team tick along nicely, doing an excellent job in numerous departments.
As you can see, the 28-year-old is an important cog in front of the United backline, who tend to go all over the place in Wilder’s unique overlapping centre-back system. Norwood records decent defensive numbers – 2.5 tackles and 1.8 interceptions per game – but the fact that he also registers an average of 2.3 key passes per game and the most passes per game of any Blades player (58.8) shows his ability to orchestrate play.
We recently detailed how Ralph Hasenhuttl should stick with his 4-2-2-2 formation to combat the Blades’ 3-5-2, by packing the midfield and looking to press the midfielders into making errors, where the Saints can then take advantage of the space vacated by the roaming centre-backs.
Højbjerg is pivotal to this happening. The 24-year-old midfielder averages some decent defensive numbers with 1.5 tackles per game and 1.8 interceptions per game, while his sheer energy makes him the Saints’ best chance of pressing Sheffield United into a mistake; his midfield partner Oriol Romeu averages two more tackles per game in fairness, but is simply too slow across the ground to be able to press effectively.
It is likely that the centre-backs won’t be pushed on when Southampton are in possession, so it is important that Hasenhuttl’s side catch the Blades by surprise and win the ball back while they are pushing players forward – especially the centre-halves.
Højbjerg has a vital role then, in turning defence into attack.