Manchester City will make the long trip south on Saturday to face Southampton, looking to maintain their 11 point lead at the top of the Premier League table
To do so Pep Guardiola’s side will need to avoid a repeat of the last time they faced the Saints, on what turned out to be a frustrating afternoon back in September.
Ralph Hassenhuttl’s side kept City at bay to earn a goalless draw at the Etihad Stadium, but not by playing their usual high-octane pressing game.
Southampton’s disciplined 4-2-2-2 setup stifled City’s attacks by blocking off passing lanes, in particular those connecting defence and holding midfield with attack.
Even when Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo did their usual thing of tucking into midfield to support the holding midfielder – in this case Fernandinho – the Brazilian had few options to progress the ball.
It was a similar story in defence, with Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake forced to pass back and forth between themselves in a largely unsuccessful attempt to create spaces to progress the play.
Systems aside, City’s players were not at their best on the ball and made it easy for the visitors to disrupt their advances upfield.
“We struggled with our build-up, it was not precise. We lost some balls,” Guardiola said after the game. “We could not contact with the people up front.”
That failure to “contact” with the attackers largely explained City’s uncharacteristic bluntness in the final third. It took until the 90th minute for the Blues to register a shot on target, the rebound of which was converted by Raheem Sterling, only for the linesman to raise his flag.
As well as restraining City, Hassenhuttl’s side carried their own threat going forward. Valentino Livramento and Adam Armstrong caused persistent problems, with the latter bursting into the box to earn a penalty and a red card for Walker. VAR overturned both decisions, but Southampton had given another example of how they could hurt City.
The question is, how will Guardiola set up his side to avoid another frustrating 90 minutes against the Saints?
Given Southampton’s ability to effectively cut off passing avenues, Pep may decide to repeat his decision to leave Dias out of his starting line up.
The Portugal international is widely regarded as City’s best defender, yet he watched the 1-0 defeat of Chelsea last weekend from the substitutes bench. Aymeric Laporte and John Stones are City’s best centre-backs in terms of build-up play and the duo could get the nod again at St Mary’s.
As much as he is loved and respected at City, Fernandinho is past his best. In the September meeting he gave a particularly uninspiring performance, as he struggled to link defence with attack.
Rodri is available this time around and is almost certain to start. His superior vision and passing abilities should help City unpick Southampton’s well-organised defence in a way that Fernandinho could not.
This could be the game that Ilkay Gundogan comes back into the team in place of Kevin De Bruyne, who has started City’s past seven games in all competitions.
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Guardiola has made no secret of the fact that the German is a better option for controlling possession and patient build-up, while De Bruyne is a weapon better suited to more open games with more transitions.
KDB is arguably City’s best passer, but his propensity to try and force through balls could result in Southampton counter-attacks.
Much has been made in recent weeks about City supposedly being boring, but the truth could not be further from that.
When you dig into the bones of how City set up from game to game, you come to appreciate that they are so much more than 11 expensive footballers just charging around a pitch.
How do you think Pep Guardiola will set his City side up against Southampton? Follow our City Is Ours writer Alex Brotherton on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.