Sam Tighe looks ahead to Saturday's showdown at St Mary's, where Southampton host Manchester City, in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Southampton will commence battle with Manchester City this weekend from an unfamiliar vantage point: above them.
The Citizens have clocked up 100, 98 and 81 points in the last three seasons, with only Liverpool managing to outlast them in the Premier League table over that time. But this season has seen the Saints soar and the Citizens stutter, making this a clash of 3rd vs 9th—but not in the order you’d usually expect.
Despite a disappointing start to the season from Pep Guardiola’s men, they remain one of the clear strongest sides in the division and could spark into life at any moment. Saints will have to be wary of an inevitable awakening and perform perfectly to delay it at least one more week.
No team in the Premier League has averaged more possession per game than Man City (60.6%). That’s a familiar story; you have to go back to 2016 to find a time when a different team topped that particular mini-league.
In the past, City have used their possession to launch wave after wave of attack at opponents, racking up goals in the process. That hasn’t quite been the case this term, though; they’ve used it to keep games tight and opponents at bay – without necessarily burying them.
As ever, Saints will need to be sharp and swift on the counter-attack when given the chance to break. There’ll be a lot of hard work off the ball, shadowing and marking runs, but the breaks will come.
Ché Adams will relish the chance to hit the channels and work on City’s centre-backs 1v1 high up the pitch, as will Theo Walcott when drifting into forward positions. Adams has already scored one winner against City in his short Saints career so far, so has a blueprint to follow to do it again.
Perhaps more than anything, Saints will need to be patient. City have displayed some uncharacteristic jitters when holding a 1-0 lead this season and seem to play against themselves in that scenario, opening the door for opponents to get back into the game if they pounce when the chance comes.
React and think on your feet
With midweek action to contemplate, it’s tough to foresee how Pep rotates his squad. He has wildly different options at full-back, on the wing and up front, so Saints’ pre-game preparations can only go so far.
Benjamin Mendy and João Cancelo offer very different things at left-back: the former will look to stretch the pitch and motor up the flank to cross, while the latter will dip inside towards the box, maintain possession and even have a pop at goal.
Raheem Sterling has long operated primarily from the left flank but tasted the right side midweek. That increases the natural width of the side, but takes him away from the little pockets of space in the box he’s made a living off occupying and converting chances from.
Ferran Torres, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Agüero are all in play for the centre-forward slot and offer something unique each: Jesus a relentless energy, Agüero a world-class poacher’s instinct and Torres some neat and tidy link-up play.
Once the teamsheet drops an hour before kick-off, Saints will have to react accordingly – and the variety in City’s squad means they’ll have to be prepared for almost anything.
Kevin De Bruyne
Despite all the moving parts in City’s XI, one thing you can probably count on is De Bruyne’s presence (and excellence) in midfield.
The general level of Guardiola’s team may have dipped this season but De Bruyne’s still at it, leading the league for shot-creating actions (66) and second only to Harry Kane in goal-creating actions (11).
He’s a creative whizz; a powerful dribbler, an elite crosser and a crisp passer rolled into one. Central to any game plan any team ever create to face City should be an idea of how to get a grip on De Bruyne’s positioning, movement and passing.
Playing an aggressive game around him is a must, and in Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse Saints have two terriers up for a midfield fight. The defensive line will also need to be very aware of back-shoulder movements from the likes of Sterling and Riyad Mahrez if De Bruyne gets his head up to deliver.