Southampton v Manchester City: Jonathan Wilson's Tactical Preview


The absence of Steven Davis with a hamstring injury is the major issue for Southampton. He missed Monday’s draw at Aston Villa and, although he is an understated presence, he was missed; that was Southampton’s least fluid and coherent performance for some time. James Ward-Prowse, Jay Rodriguez and Sam Gallagher are also out. City could have only one absentee come Sunday. Aleksandar Kolarov is definitely out for another week but both David Silva and Edin Dzeko could be available, even if it’s unlikely either will start.



City never came to terms with Southampton’s pressing game at St Mary’s last season, giving up 55% of possession and losing the shot count 15-12. Sergio Aguero put City ahead, but Dani Osvaldo levelled. It was a different story at the Etihad in April, though, City taking the lead through a third-minute penalty and going on to win 4-1. Jesus Navas was superb that day, although neither of the players he overwhelmed on the Southampton left, Jay Rodriguez and Luke Shaw, will play on Sunday. Southampton’s personnel, in particular, have changed significantly since that fixture but the lesson of the game at St Mary’s – only one Southampton starter that day, Jose Fonte, is likely to start on Sunday – is that City can be put under pressure.



Just how good are this Southampton? They have had a superb start to the season, winning eight of their 12 league games to date and losing just two, but the big doubt is that those two were against the only two of last season’s top seven that they’ve faced, Liverpool and Tottenham. Both games, admittedly, were away. At home Southampton have dropped just two of a possible 18 points this season, winning their last five, but they are entering a crucial stage of their campaign, with Arsenal and Manchester United following immediately after City, and Everton, Chelsea, and Arsenal and United again to follow in the six fixtures after that.



It’s the eternal question about City: which of their crop of gifted and expensive midfielders will Manuel Pellegrini pick, and how will they play? Yaya Toure’s goal against Swansea on Saturday perhaps suggested something of a return to form, but City’s problem this season has not been moments of individual brilliance; it’s been playing cohesively. If it hadn't been for individual excellence, most notably from Sergio Aguero, this season would have been far worse than it is. Toure isn’t the only one who’s underperformed this season; so too has Fernandinho, while Fernando hasn’t quite found his feet. Pellegrini, probably, would prefer to field two of those three with Silva in front of them. That probably won’t be possible on Sunday, at least not from the start, which probably means another start for the consistent and consistently underrated James Milner, with Toure pushing on to challenge Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama.



In Davis’s absence against Aston Villa on Monday, Ronald Koeman opted to play Shane Long behind Graziano Pelle. He acknowledged in part that was to try to use the pace and power of the Ireland international to unsettle Villa’s inexperienced central defence, rather than necessarily a long-term plan, but anyway, the ploy didn’t really work. Long looked a little lost playing so deep and it would be no surprise if Koeman opted for Jack Cork instead against City. That would give the midfield three a more defensive aspect, but that might be desirable anyway as Southampton look to deal with City’s inconsistent but still enormously gifted midfield.



With Kolarov out, there is no option but for Gael Clichy to start, even though he has been as badly affected as anybody by the City malaise this season. If Southampton are to trouble City, you suspect it will be through Dusan Tadic, who has had a magnificent start to life on the south coast, and his ability to swoop in off the right flank. That, in turn, places an onus on however the left-sided of City’s two holding midfielders – probably Fernandinho or Milner – to cover, and that might in turn create space for Nathaniel Clyne, who’s already scored twice this season.



Given Southampton are above City in the table, there seems at first something a little odd in the fact that they, at home, are a longer price than City, but actually if anything City are probably a little long at 2.33. There are slow signs of them coming into form, Aguero has probably never finished better and it may be that Southampton, particularly in the absence of Davis, are not quite as strong as they were two to three weeks ago.