After a scare-free Halloween week, City’s next opponent in the crowded fixture list is Southampton. Though the Saints put in an excellent performance against the Blues last year, City are much improved this season against teams in the lower areas of the table. Given the easy early schedule, I’m not quite ready to declare this team superior than last year’s edition despite the impressive start.
Still, one thing that can’t be denied is that they’ve played much better against teams outside last year’s top six. City last season averaged 13 shots and five shots on target more than such opponents, a pretty high baseline. This season, they’re averaging an incredible 19 and eight in those categories.
The two keys to this have been the addition of Mahrez and the return of Mendy, as both have allowed City to get more width and variety in attack from their base formation. Pep can now throw inverted wingers on both sides with overlapping full-backs, or have the full-backs tuck into midfield and isolate the wingers against the defending full-back as City did to such success last year.
City can use that flexibility to handle a Saints team that have dropped a lot defensively from where they were in years past, when the combination of Virgil Van Dijk and Jose Fonte ruled the backline. They’ve regressed further under Mark Hughes, possibly since they dropped Oriel Romeu from the base of midfield.
With Mario Lemina and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg as the primary midfield pairing, there is room to exploit in the center. The enduring image from their (admittedly pretty boring) derby with Bournemouth recently was Adam Smith’s run from left-back carving right through the midfield in the opening minutes.
More positively, the change in formation has resulted in an improved attack (xG per game is 1.293 compared to 1.1 last year per Understat), largely because they aren’t as dependent on the fullbacks for width. That has meant they produce fewer crosses as a result, a method of attack that tends to lead to poor-quality opportunities. Southampton averaged more crosses than any other team in the 2016-17 season and were second last season.
This season, they’ve dropped to seventh and are working to create more valuable opportunities. Not only are they generating more shots in the box and the six-yard box than last season, they’re averaging fewer headed shots as well.
That said, they are still being cursed by the confidence fairy in front of goal. I had posited that perhaps Southampton’s streak of under-performing xG was due to the greater variance in accumulating a lot of low xG opportunities, particularly headers, than their raw totals would suggest. However, the change in attack patterns hasn’t resulted in any improvement on that score so far.
From an attacking perspective, Southampton may best served continuing as they are and hope Danny Ings and Charlie Austin can start finishing. For this game though, Hughes is likely to be more conservative. That could mean Romeu back in at the base of midfield and Austin dropped in a 4-5-1 formation, or perhaps move to a back five as they did in portions of last year.
Whatever they do, I’d expect a tough time for Southampton at City. And though City were the ones who had a prayer answered when Raheem Sterling scored a magical winner last season, I think the Saints will need a miracle this time around.
For my picks for the Twelve app, I’m going with Sterling, David Silva, and Aymeric Laporte. Even if lightning doesn’t strike twice with another magic goal, Sterling is in fine form. Silva should have a lot of room in midfield to work his magic, and Laporte will be important both in the buildup and in defense if the Saints revert to their old tactics.