Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews the visit of Premier League champions Manchester City to St Mary's on Saturday evening.
Manchester City travel to St Mary’s in great form. What’s behind it?
The easy answer to this question for much of the campaign has simply been “Erling Haaland” – but, shorn of his services last weekend against Liverpool, they put on a goalscoring show regardless.
They are on a seven-game win streak in all competitions, netting 27 goals in that span. Seven came against RB Leipzig, six against Burnley and four against Liverpool, meaning all manner, size and shape of teams has been dispatched comfortably.
There’s an incredible rhythm to their play, there’s been a tweak to their formation which has proved ingenious, and several key players are in top form.
For Pep Guardiola, it’s the ideal time of the season for it all to come together; for Rubén Sellés, halting this juggernaut is arguably the biggest challenge of his young managerial career to date.
What’s the secret to this newly-tweaked City side?
Defining formations using numbers can be tricky at times, but Man City’s shape of late has looked a lot like a 3-2-4-1 while on the ball. It’s notable for its box-shaped midfield and complete lack of full-backs or wing-backs at times – plus, John Stones played the entire match against Liverpool in midfield!
The box (2-2) shape helps them maintain control of the game and outnumber most opposing midfields. The two at the base progress the ball, while the two ahead (plus the two wingers) provide passing options. One of the two deeper midfielders will move to full-back if City lose the ball, creating a temporary back four.
Against Liverpool that was Stones, but previously this year it’s been Rico Lewis, while before the World Cup it was often João Cancelo. This system has unlocked great form from everyone in a City shirt, but İlkay Gündoğan and Jack Grealish have looked particularly excellent.
What are the keys to causing an upset here?
Playing against Manchester City is very difficult because the margins are extremely fine: sitting deep and defending for 90 minutes isn’t an option – they’ll wear you down and find a way through – but if you step out and press, you open up spaces for them to use.
Playing on the edge feels like an unnatural thing to do against such an opponent, but Saints have taken points from three of their last six home games against Pep’s men and each result has featured a willingness to step up and disrupt – a bravery which is a core ingredient to levelling the playing field.
Speed to counter with is absolutely essential, as most attacks will be direct and City’s heavy possession and territory leaves plenty of space in behind. A clinical edge in front of goal must complement that, as City concede the fewest shots (7.4 per game) in the league, so making the most of opportunities is essential.
At the other end, keeping Haaland quiet has proved incredibly hard this season – but not impossible. He favours the back post and his acceleration to meet the ball is frightening; the centre-backs will have some fight on their hands with him.
Predicted XI (3-2-4-1): Ederson; Walker, Dias, Aké; Stones, Rodri; Bernardo, De Bruyne, Gündoğan, Grealish; Haaland.
-City have a season-defining game with Bayern Munich on Tuesday, so Guardiola will use the squad to its fullest in this period
-If Haaland’s fit, expect him to get some minutes in order to prepare for the German champions
-Álvarez is a brilliant stand-in up front if required; his energy and movement is superb
-Bernardo and Walker headline a slew of players vying for a spot in the XI that beat Liverpool