Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe takes a look at how Southampton can hope to take advantage of Manchester City's surprising dip in form when the Premier League champions visit St Mary's on Sunday...
For many teams this season, welcoming defending champions Manchester City to their homes has been a daunting task.
Despite juggling injuries to key players such as Benjamin Mendy, Sergio Agüero and Kevin De Bruyne, Pep Guardiola’s men very much picked up where they left off at the end of last season, continuing in the same vein of form that earned them a colossal 100 points in the Premier League.
But over the last few weeks things have taken a turn. City rock up to St Mary’s this Sunday following back-to-back defeats – and neither came against title-challenging sides.
They feel...unusually vulnerable. Both Crystal Palace and Leicester City have shown how to both push their buttons and nullify their attack, giving Ralph Hasenhüttl a fair idea of which key battles are going to be crucial for this match, and which areas of the pitch he has to target.
With Mendy injured and Fabian Delph suspended, City’s chief area of concern heading into this fixture is left-back. Guardiola will either have to use Oleksandr Zinchenko (a winger) in that position, or push Aymeric Laporte (his best centre-back) over to the flank to cover.
Whichever solution City choose, it’s an area Southampton must focus their energies on, as it offers real chance of success.
Delph was having a rough month in that position even before his red card against Leicester, continually being targeted for back-post crosses. The Foxes became the third club to punish his positional awareness, following Everton and Watford.
Zinchenko is no better positionally than Delph. If anything, he’s worse. Laporte is better, and defends the channel Redmond will look to run far better, but has a centre-back’s mobility and will have issues with speed instead.
Exploit Fernandinho’s absence
It’s no coincidence that City have recorded back-to-back losses in the two games Fernandinho has missed through injury. It’s perhaps only now that we are truly appreciating what the Brazilian does for his team.
City circulate possession like no other team in the league, and that’s thanks to the likes of De Bruyne and David Silva’s technical abilities. They also pin opponents into their own third like no other, and that’s down to Fernandinho’s anticipation and aggression in stamping out counter-attacks.
Without him prowling the centre, City are far more counter-attackable. Guardiola tried John Stones in that role against Palace but the passing game took a hit; against Leicester it was Ilkay Gündogan, who restored fluency but failed to offer the requisite defensive security.
If Fernandinho isn’t fit for the south coast visit, City won’t be able to pin Southampton back. That means the first balls out of defence toward Danny Ings won’t be snuffed out anywhere near as routinely, giving the Englishman a crucial role in chance creation from deep.
Yan Valery is accustomed to overcoming steep challenges. He’s been a top-tier footballer for just a month, but has already squared off against Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw, then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Iwobi, then Felipe Anderson. That’s a concentration of talent many youngsters never get to test themselves against across an entire career.
And yet, even with all that already under his belt, he’s still yet to face a task quite like the one this weekend will bring in the form of Leroy Sané.
The German hasn’t been at his brilliant best over the last two games, but that simply means he’s primed to bounce back. Valery might feel the full force of that, and needs to steel himself for quite the contest.
Sané’s speed, directness and ability to either cut infield or drive to the byeline makes him incredibly hard to handle. It’s important not to dive in and commit too early, yet if you back off and back off, he’ll square your hips up and breeze past you.
Valery’s resistance against Sané will be crucial to a Saints result, and he’d do well to check in on how Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ricardo Pereira dealt with him in previous games – as well as asking for help from Jan Bednarek on the inside at times!