Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's trip to Premier League leaders Manchester City in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Southampton picked up a confidence-boosting victory over Sheffield United at the weekend and the timing of it could barely have been sweeter.
Not only does it put an end to a run of games without a win, but it also lifts the camp ahead of perhaps the most difficult test the Premier League can offer: Manchester City away.
The champions-elect will be eager to get back on the right track themselves after a surprise loss in the Manchester derby at the weekend, giving this fixture an edge it otherwise may not have had.
Here are the three keys to emerging from what promises to be a gruelling contest with three points.
Scattered lightly throughout a very accomplished overall performance at Bramall Lane on Saturday were some big Fraser Forster moments.
Minding the sticks for the second consecutive Premier League game, he stepped up with a few vital interventions – one at the end of each half – and provided a calming presence for the defence to feed off.
His 1v1 stop on David McGoldrick right before the half-time whistle was the epitome of composed and crucial to the way the game shaped out.
With the league’s top creators and top scorers up next, it’s fair to expect Forster to have a key role once again – but not just with his hands. The 32-year-old’s distribution has looked much improved in 2021 and that could prove a difference-maker against City.
Their pressing game is back to finely tuned and they can be very difficult to play through. Skipping the build-up phase with longer strikes out from the back can bring about attacking chances, though, and while Jannik Vestergaard is a candidate to play these balls, it can be even more effective straight from the goalkeeper as it’s an even quicker release.
Fielding game-stretching threats to complement that, such as Nathan Tella or Ché Adams, creates a direct way to stress City 1v1 at the back.
Going long can be effective against City as it entirely avoids the issue of dealing with their pressing. It can lead to a lot of lost balls (longer passes are, naturally, less efficient) and if you’re a team who sits in it’ll come straight back at you, but a team like Southampton can use them as pressing triggers.
You only have to watch one minute of City’s defeat to Manchester United to illustrate that pack-like pressing and chasing in midfield can lead to success. A City throw-in became a United penalty in seconds – but only because the midfield stepped up to apply pressure and steal the ball.
It can be difficult due to the inherent threat City carry at all times, but Hasenhüttl’s favourite words – “automatisms” and “bravery” – are more important than ever in these types of games. Going long and stepping up high to contest the loose balls will dodge City’s pressing, but also bring pressing opportunities of Saints’ own.
Across City’s remarkable recent 21-game win streak, they thrilled and excited with their football. They used a rotating cast of midfielders in the No. 9 role and at times produced the sort of total football Pep Guardiola’s entire philosophy strives for. They outplayed teams.
But they also outworked them. The energy present in the team has been astonishing at times – so much so that on the one occasion their intensity dipped, they ended up losing. There’s no direct correlation there, but it likely wasn’t a coincidence either.
Missing from the XI against United were Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden, two players who have played big parts in providing the energy and dynamism that has unlocked and overwhelmed so many opponents. Foden stepped off the bench for the last 20, but Silva didn’t feature at all.
City’s natural reaction to the loss will be to focus on setting things right at the next opportunity, and to do so they’ll likely up the ante again, with both Foden and Silva in from the start.
Saints must be prepared for that and match City’s intensity all over the pitch – for 90 minutes – if they’re to turn a blip into something perhaps a little more concerning for Pep and Co.