Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe takes a closer look at how Southampton may approach the challenge of facing in-form Manchester City at St Mary's in the latest addition of Tactical Watch, in association with Utilita Energy...
Thursday saw Southampton’s next opponents, Manchester City, exact a small slice of revenge over new Premier League champions Liverpool.
In response to the Guard of Honour they were required to supply, they scored four – and could have had more – in a true blitz of a display aimed at reminding the Reds exactly what they’re capable of.
Is being next up against the Citizens, after such a performance, a good thing or a bad thing? We’ll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, here are the three keys to how the game will play out.
You have to take the comprehensive 4-0 scoreline against Liverpool with a small pinch of salt. Yes, the attack was purring, the passes landing with laser-guided vision, but defensively they played on the edge all game long and could easily have conceded a few.
In particular, there was the chance Sadio Mané squandered one-on-one by essentially forgetting the ball. Goalkeeper Ederson Moraes made three saves and leapt out to clear a few dangerous balls acrobatically; the back line were worked and moved around plenty, there was just – for once – no cutting edge in Liverpool’s attack.
Many of the Reds’ openings came from pressing goal kicks aggressively. Ederson will look to play short even under the heaviest pressure, looking for his centre-backs or Rodri in order to string together an attack from deep. Liverpool stole the ball numerous times, mostly when the longer forward pass was attempted, and should have done more with these opportunities.
Southampton can easily replicate this strategy and apply heavy pressure to goal kicks, attempting to force the same mistakes. We’ve seen all season – and in particular against Watford recently – how effectively they can do it.
Danny Ings, Golden Boot chaser
Chief among that effort to press, harry and disrupt will be Danny Ings, who is enjoying the finest campaign of his career and stands England’s most in-form striker.
He’s already hit the 20-goal mark in all competitions and is just two strikes from being able to say the same in Premier League terms only. He’s one off Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Jamie Vardy in the Golden Boot stakes, and will have been watching City’s haphazardness at the back against Liverpool (and Chelsea the week before) with a glint in his eye.
At this stage of the season, the motivations of every team come into question. Ostensibly, Saints have little to play for given their safety in mid-table, but what sets them apart from the likes of Burnley or Crystal Palace is two things: 1) Hasenhüttl will demand intensity and focus regardless, and 2) Ings will do the same, as he seeks out the chances to continue racking up the goals.
Kevin De Bruyne, Player of the Year?
It’s rare that this column will pick out a single opposing player to be wary of, but Kevin De Bruyne’s majesty in midfield this season demands it: he is a remarkable player in a remarkable run of form, drawing justified plaudits after his incisive performance against Liverpool on Thursday.
He’s closing in on the Premier League assist record (20, held by Thierry Henry), currently on 17 with six games to go. An Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain own goal robbed him of his 18th against Liverpool.
He personifies City’s threat in transitions; when they build from goal kicks and get the ball to his feet, he turns, strides forward and feeds perfectly weighted balls into the path of quick runners. He also shimmies and moves so cleverly to make space to receive the ball on the half-turn, showcasing surprising elusiveness considering he’s a stockier, more robust dribbler.
Guardiola’s City are associated with neat, short, sharp passing moves, and that’s fair – but don’t forget they can go from 0-100 in seconds, via De Bruyne, and punish you in just two or three passes.
Hasenhüttl may be tempted to stick his best tracker on him yard for yard, rather than commit to zonal marking or use two to shield him, but there’s no obvious strategy that jumps out to contain him. De Bruyne’s the bookies’ favourite for PFA Player of the Year and deservedly so.