This game week brings together two teams that are in similar situations despite being positioned at two separate ends of the Premier League table. On Sunday, Liverpool travel to St. Mary’s to take on Southampton. If the Reds lose and other results go against them, they can drop out of the top-four positions – a relegation of sorts for them. If the Saints lose and other results go against them, then they can literally drop back into the relegation zone.
Southampton have 26 points and are placed 15th after 26 games so far this season – a very poor record considering their achievements since their promotion to the top tier. In fact, they did flirt with the relegation zone during game weeks 24 and 25, before jumping out of it with an away victory at West Brom last weekend. They are in such dire straits despite not losing in a game (all competitions) since January 3, as they have been piling on draws in the league. Only 2 points separate Stoke City (18th) and Huddersfield (19th) from the Saints’ 15th position. That’s why Southampton need a positive result on Sunday if they are to stay out of the relegation battle. Last week’s win at West Brom must have reinvigorated the team but Liverpool are a different proposition, especially at St. Mary’s, where the Saints have really struggled of late.
Liverpool could also drop down the table, should they return empty-handed from St. Mary’s. The drop will not relegate them, but they can ill-afford any result that can jeopardize their Champions League future. Liverpool come into this game, having played out that controversial 2-2 draw against Spurs at home last Sunday. They are currently placed 3rd at 51 points in the table. But any result other than a win can allow Chelsea (50 points) or Tottenham (49 points) to catch up with them. This, along with the incentive to end their poor run at St. Mary’s should motivate the Reds on Sunday, even though they might have one eye on the upcoming trip to Porto in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16. This game will also be Virgil van Dijk’s return to St. Mary’s after his transfer to Liverpool in January. He will be hoping that it ends in a victory as the Reds are yet to win with the Dutchman starting.
For Southampton, Guido Carrillo will keep his place up front as both Manolo Gabbiadini and Charlie Austin are injured. Other than those two, Mauricio Pellegrino has no other injury concerns.
For Liverpool, Ragnar Klavan and Alberto Moreno both have recovered and will make the squad. However, Joe Gomez will likely remain out due to a knee problem. Liverpool will likely feature most from their ex-Southampton contingent of Virgil van Dijk, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
- In Premier League matches, Southampton have faced Liverpool 37 times, have won on 10 occasions and have drawn on 10, losing 17 times. However, in the last five league matches, Saints have the upper hand winning twice and losing once.
- Liverpool have lost only once (away to Swansea) in 17 league games bagging 38 points out of a possible 51. However, they have not won at St. Mary’s in their last two league visits. The Reds have scored 13 goals in their last six visits (all competitions) to Southampton and conceded five. But they have been goal-less in their last two visits.
- Saints ended their 12-game winless run against West Bromwich Albion last weekend and looking for back-to-back wins for the first time in 10 months. They are also unbeaten in six previous league matches played at home on a Sunday, drawing five and winning one.
- Jurgen Klopp will lead a Liverpool side for the ninth time against the Saints, but his previous eight meetings have not all been successful. He has lost thrice and has drawn thrice against the Saints. Indeed, according to Clubelo, Liverpool have lost the most ELO points to Southampton, indicating that the Reds have been stunned by the Saints several times.
Southampton’s problem this season has been the lack of goals. They simply lack the firepower upfront. For the Saints to do well on Sunday, their plan as to depend on defending stoutly and winning midfield battles. Mario Lemina, who they purchased during the summer, could be key in these roles. While just his presence in the buildup of an attack should have led to 3.25 goals this season, it has not happened because of the bluntness of Southampton’s attack. Lemina’s xG and xAssist numbers are not great and he has only scored a single goal in the league so far. However, he has put in at least three Man of the Match performances for the Saints and he will be key in the midfield battle against the Reds on Sunday.
If Mohamed Salah was not in the best form of his life and if Philippe Coutinho had not grabbed all the transfer-related headlines, Roberto Firmino’s 11 goals and 5 assists in 25 appearances so far in the league would have received more attention. Against what is surely going to be a deep defense from Southampton, Liverpool do not have a creative threat as big as Coutinho anymore. This is where Firmino becomes indispensable as he has the guile and strength to occupy Southampton’s defenders’ attention while allowing Salah and Mane to steal into the space he creates. Firmino’s xG90 and xA90 numbers suggest that the probability of him contributing a goal in 90 minutes is more than 50%, while his xGChain90 numbers indicate that Liverpool have a xG of 0.84 in 90 minutes, from any buildup where Firmino has been involved.
In the recent past, Southampton has thwarted Liverpool several times in all competitions. A strong defensive focus from the Saints had caused a sort of goal drought in this fixture before the Reds hit 3 goals earlier this season at Anfield. Southampton will likely go in with similar defensive strategies on Sunday and that will mean another low-scoring game. However, the differences in Liverpool’s away form (most away goals in Europe’s top five leagues) and Southampton’s home form (trying to avoid 7th game without a win) mean that the Reds should be able to take all three points on Sunday, albeit narrowly.