Premier League
Southampton 0 West Ham United 1

Saturday, 14th December 2019
by Chris Wilkerson

West Ham scrapped, fought and clung on to a one goal lead at St. Mary's as a first-half goal for Sebastien Haller was enough to give Manuel Pellegrini's side all three points and a victory that should keep their manager in work.

In a game that had earned the 'six-pointer' moniker, Pellegrini made a tactical switch to bring Haller in for Felipe Anderson and pair the Frenchman up top with the effervescent Michail Antonio. It proved a masterstroke, the two strikers outperforming Southampton's and bullying the home side's defence throughout the game.


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With the shadow of relegation looming over the match, the game won't be remembered for glorious, flowing football; the tension was palpable throughout.

But the visitors will feel they earned their victory, always offering a threat but retreating into their shells to hold onto the lead as the game went on, something they didn't do against Arsenal on Monday.

The Hammers started on top and will feel they were comfortably the better side for the first 45 minutes.

Declan Rice had a goal correctly ruled out for offside in the opening two minutes, but it was most notable from the off how the partnership up front would shape the game.

Haller was winning everything in the air, winning 10 aerial challenges in his 78 minutes, whilst Antonio played off his strike partner perfectly. They appeared to bring the best out of each other, and Haller returned to the player he started the season as.

Antonio was dismantling the Southampton backline, whether on the ball or off it, and it was his running in the channels that created the first big chance of the game. Bullying his man down the right, he drove a cross into the area directly to Pablo Fornals. It was under his feet and awkward to finish, but the Spaniard did well to dig it out and divert the ball goalward. Only a dramatic late block stopped Fornals getting his first Premier League goal.

From there, the rest of the opening 25 minutes was a battle of two hard-working teams lacking a bit of quality to open the other up. The Hammers, matching Southampton's 4-4-2, were the better side and were finding it much easier to attack and defend as they could rely on their forward line to hold the ball, work the defence and stretch the backline by running in behind. It gave the team the option to play long or short, whilst relieving pressure on the defence in a way that the poorly functioning attack has not done since September.

The pair leading the line should have got their reward after 25 minutes, their physicality again proving too much for Southampton. A quite fantastic Cresswell cross flew across the face of goal at head height, but both Antonio and Haller had been dragged to the floor.


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The referee shook his head, and when VAR intervened it only supported the on-field official. Whilst Antonio's claim looked questionable, there was absolutely no doubt that Bertrand had done nothing but foul Haller with no intention of getting the ball. Those who question VAR will wonder why the system is in place if it cannot overrule such refereeing decisions.

It left both men very frustrated, who spent most of the next ten minutes screaming for any foul they could and looking enraged with the officiating.

Thankfully for the Hammers, they channeled their frustration effectively. Antonio once again spun away from his marker and drove down the right side of the area. He bullied the defender, kept the ball in play and laid it back to Snodgrass in space. His cross dropped at the far post to Fornals, who smartly headed back to Haller around the penalty spot for the Frenchman to catch it on the half volley with his left foot.

It wasn't perfectly struck, but it was perfectly aimed, squeezing into the far corner off the inside of the post, out of the goalkeeper's reach and into the back of the net for his first goal in nine games and a 1-0 West Ham lead.

Southampton had little to offer in response, Ogbonna and Balbuena quite in control of Ings and Long in their attack. A half chance as Hojbjerg headed high and wide from just inside the area was as much spark as they offered before the half ended.

The Hammers could go into the half-time break delighted with their work, and Pellegrini assured that his tactical decisions before the game had worked.

Southampton responded at half-time by removing a winger and adding Oriel Romeu to sit deep in a midfield three.

Their plans were nearly ruined within a minute of the restart, Antonio combining with Haller to give Fornals a chance on the edge of Southampton's area. He may have had more time than he thought, but his effort was well saved by McCarthy.


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Five minutes later, Antonio thought he had extended the lead. Bursting through the defence onto a Fornals pass after Haller had flicked on, Antonio ran into the area and hammered the ball into the back of the net.

As he wheeled away, VAR checked the goal. Replays showed the ball being volleyed into his arm from close range, his arm against his chest, which was enough to rule the goal out. For the second time in recent weeks, Antonio can feel aggrieved about the harsh handball rules.

What it did do was highlight how West Ham had found a way to play that suited their players. Fornals drifted off the wide area to combine with the strikers, Haller offered a direct route and Antonio played to the strengths of his partner.

The Hammers had control of the second half again, but threatened little from here onwards. They managed to keep Southampton maintained, away from goal, but elected to withdraw away from their attacking approach as the half wore on. From there, the Saints began to threaten as West Ham retreated.

Danny Ings, quite comfortably the home side's best player on the day and throughout the season, sparked his side into life.

Djenepo, who troubled Fredericks down the wing later in the game, made easy progress down the left and clipped it into the area for Ings. The forward controlled and struck in quick motion, his left foot effort beating David Martin only to hit the underside of the bar. It bounced away to Long, but his shot was tame and wide.

With 20 minutes remaining, it gave Southampton hope. At the same time, Antonio began to notably tire, highlighting a weakness in an approach that relies on him to run endlessly and carry the team forward.


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Moments later, Ings strode through the defence to smash the bottom of the post. He was called offside, but the referee waited wisely. Replays showed that a goal would have been allowed as the Englishman was comfortably onside.

Pellegrini responded with a substitution, the effort of Snodgrass replaced by Andriy Yarmolenko down the right. His efforts in the remaining 20 minutes were underwhelming.

The Irons retreated further, but did have their chances to settle things.

First the impressive Haller managed to turn a wicked Antonio cross that was just behind him into an opening, turning his body to flick the header backwards and towards the bottom corner. It took a fantastic McCarthy save to stop Haller scoring again.

Moments later, Yarmolenko could feel a little disappointed not to have done better after Haller, Antonio and Fornals again created an opening, but his effort was awkward and flicked over the bar.

On came Sanchez and then Diop to hold the lead. Centre back Dale Stephens found the best chance fall to his feet inside the area, but his finish was so wide that it went out for a throw. As time wore on, Angelo Ogbonna made a fantastic block in the area to stop substitute Che Adams.

For all the pressure, it amounted to very little. West Ham will feel they deserved their three points, a vital win on the road. Southampton may feel they could have got a point, and certainly they came close, but they will also look at a team who toiled fruitlessly and were easily dominated by Michail Antonio.

With all the tension around this West Ham side, with the manager almost certain to be sacked if the team lost and everyone well aware of that fact, it can be considered an even better victory. They could easily have hid today and let their manager take the flak, the manager himself could have carried on the same course he'd been on and taken the payoff he'd received.

Instead, Pellegrini was brave enough to make decisive and tactical changes to his side, brave enough to bring in a striker on poor form and under heavy criticism.

The players fought for him too, showing application and discipline, passion and desire.

They were all rewarded, the three points taking them only a single place up the table, but four points ahead of their opponents and four points clear of the relegation places.

With their fixture against Liverpool postponed, they now have an easier Christmas spell than their rivals and eleven days before the away fixture at Crystal Palace. Defeat there and the cycle of media pressure likely starts again, but today's test was passed and passed well.


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Player Ratings

David Martin
Quietly did his job, even picking up a nice yellow for time wasting at the end. Hopefully his injury isn't problematic.


Ryan Fredericks
Got caught out a few times by Djenepo but was left with little support and was solid.


Aaron Cresswell
Was solid defensively, happy to take responsibility on the ball going forward. The cross he put in for what should have been the first half penalty was exquisite.


Fabian Balbuena
Back to the form of last season. Wins a lot in the air and is happy in backs-to-the-wall performances.


Angelo Ogbonna
Made vital blocks, tackles and clearances late on. Was calm and confident before that.


Declan Rice
Stuck to his role and stayed discipline. Was stronger aerially than he has been this season. Passing accuracy of 55% is almost unheard of for Declan, but could be attributed to a slightly different role and a more direct approach to play.


Mark Noble
For once, outshone his younger midfield partner. Snapped into Southampton players when the tempo dropped and released the counter with his passing.


Robert Snodgrass
Worked hard and supported the attack well whilst being disciplined defensively to make the system work.


Pablo Fornals
Like Snodgrass, he understood the limitations of his role in a 4-4-2, yet did brilliantly to create chances and get into positions for his own.


Michail Antonio
The Southampton defence were terrified of him. He was too strong, too fast, too clever. Deserved a goal, did brilliantly for the winner, a wonderful performance. Him and Haller were a good combination.


Sebastien Haller
Played up front with support around him and looked like the player who started the season. Who'd have thought it? Has won the most aerial challenges in the league this year, and that ability was crucial here as the side went front to back to unleash the strikers.



Substitutes

Andriy Yarmolenko
(Replaced Snodgrass) Was so unaware defensively that he actually seemed to hinder Fredericks. Sloppy on the ball too.


Carlos Sanchez
(Replaced Haller) Made a couple of clearances but also put the team in a pressure situation with sloppy midfield passing.


Issa Diop
(Replaced Noble) Came on late and won headers when it was needed.


Roberto Jimenez Gago
Did not play.


Pablo Zabaleta
Did not play.


Arthur Masuaku
Did not play.


Albian Ajeti
Did not play.



Match Facts

West Ham United: David Martin, Ryan Fredericks, Aaron Cresswell, Fabian Balbuena, Angelo Ogbonna, Declan Rice, Mark Noble, Robert Snodgrass, Pablo Fornals, Michail Antonio, Sebastien Haller.

Goals: Sebastian Haller 37                  .

Booked: Robert Snodgrass  Ryan Fredericks  David Martin       .

Sent off: None.

Southampton: McCarthy, Cedric (Adams 87), Stephens, Bednarek, Bertrand, Hojbjerg, Djenepo, Ward-Prowse, Redmond (Romeu 46), Long (Armstrong 84), Ings.

Subs not used: Gunn, Yoshida, Vestergaard, Obafemi.

Goals: .

Booked: Hojbjerg.

Sent off: None.

Referee: Martin Atkinson.

Attendance: 27,701.

Man of the Match: Michail Antonio.