Tactical Watch: Midfield bite key to taming City


Sam Tighe assesses how Southampton can stop runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City, who arrive at St Mary's on a 12-match winning streak. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with

There’s no getting away from it: Manchester City, home or away, is one of – if not

– toughest assignment in football right now.

They’re on a 12-match win streak that has seen them soar clear at the top of the Premier League table, opening up an 11-point lead over Liverpool and a 12-point gap to Chelsea. There are plenty who consider the title race done and dusted despite the fact we’ve only just passed the halfway stage.

City’s sheer level of dominance and consistency has shocked many; their pursuit of Harry Kane over the summer suggested Pep Guardiola felt he needed a reliable source of goals up top to compete with the other big guns post-Sergio Agüero, and when no No. 9 was secured, a “weakness” was sensed.

City, though, have made said “weakness” their strength, sharing goals around the squad in a relentless team effort. Sixteen different players have found the net in 22 Premier League games; it’s impossible to say who will score, but it’s almost guaranteed they will.

Just three English clubs have held them scoreless this season: Tottenham on the opening weekend (when City fielded approximately half a first-team) Crystal Palace in an epic November shock, and Southampton back in September, securing a 0-0 draw at the Etihad Stadium that could have been even more fruitful.

The hallmarks of Saints’ performance that day were: a battling, compact midfield that fenced off the centre and forced their opponents to play wide; quick releases forward once the ball had been won, putting City on the back foot; and a healthy dose of excellent penalty-box defending throughout.

All of this will be required again, though it’s not enough to be satisfied by forcing City to play wide, as that’s where one of their most dangerous players, João Cancelo, operates. Playing an inverted role from the left, he opens up passing lanes and angles that are tough to deal with – in fact, Saints fans will be familiar with them, as Kyle Walker-Peters emulates the role in a way.

Combine that with Jack Grealish’s dribbling, Phil Foden’s movement and Bernardo Silva’s vivacious, all-energy displays, and it’s no wonder they’re able to find multiple ways to pick through teams.

Saints must strike a delicate balance between tempering the press (so as not to get exposed) but not surrendering ground. City want to trap you in your own third and turn up the pressure dial, working the ball patiently until they find a crack. Disrupting their build-up is crucial, as is having that all-important out-ball up front.

It’s in games like these that having strikers of Armando Broja and Ché Adams’ profile in particular is extremely handy. Longer balls out from the back are at times the only option, and it’s crucial that the striker latches on to it and holds onto it for five seconds (or wins a foul) to help the team up the pitch. They’ll have to battle and scrap, showing both physicality and composure.

And, most importantly, they’ll have to be clinical. City don’t give up much at the back – they’ve conceded the fewest shots on target (48) in the league and Ederson has had to make the fewest saves (34) – so when the chance does crop up, take it.