It was the best of teams. It was the worst of teams. At least as far as the Premier League table was concerned.
It was Matchweek 16. Southampton had just lost 1-0 to Cardiff City and found themselves in 19th place – level on points with Fulham who were sat just below them.
At the other end of the table, Manchester City had fallen to Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea, having been unbeaten in the league before that. Liverpool had managed to sneak ahead but, as everyone was saying, every team has to lose at some point and Chelsea seemed as likely a team as any to inflict first blood on Pep Guardiola’s team. City were still the overwhelming favourites to take home the Premier League trophy at the end of the season.
Since then, the tables have turned: recently-appointed Ralph Hasenhüttl has reversed Southampton’s fortunes, seeing them victorious against Arsenal and Huddersfield in his first four games in charge.
For Guardiola, however, his side have inexplicably slumped, with losses to Crystal Palace and Leicester City coming in the wake of that first loss to Chelsea.
This season, then, we have witnessed a tale of two Cities and it is not immediately obvious why this might have been the case. Flying out of the blocks, the Manchester club looked like they were in little danger of failing to defend their title. Over the course of the month of December, though, they have ceded the advantage to Liverpool, who FiveThirtyEight now have at 72% to win the league.
Part of the reason why Manchester City have struggled is obvious when you trace their xG timeline through the course of the season. The graphic below (although it only runs up to Matchday 17), shows that, after Matchday nine, Guardiola’s side have struggled to maintain the same consistent discrepancy between xG created and xG conceded.
Of course, the Catalan coach will point out that, in each instance, his side have produced more xG than they have conceded suggesting that luck has gone against them. Even in their most recent loss against Leicester City, City recorded a higher xG created than xG conceded. However, regardless of how you look at it, the xG created has dipped while the xG conceded has risen.
City fans would also point out the fact that their team have struggled with injuries at this juncture of the season. Although Kevin De Bruyne is now being phased back into the team after a couple of lengthy lay-offs, City have lost David Silva and Fernandinho in recent weeks in the central midfield areas, with Sergio Aguero also dropping in and out of the team.
Regardless of the fact the current Premier League champions boast an impressive depth in their squad, this sort of disruption would upset any side, not least a team who are so reliant upon Fernandinho in the defensive midfield area.
This recent graphic from Football Whispers shows just how important the Brazilian has been for Manchester City in terms of defensive actions this season. Given his defensive numbers have been increasing since September, the implication is that City’s press isn’t quite as functional as it was last season, leading to Fernandinho performing an increased defensive role within the team. Without him in the side in recent weeks, it is hardly surprising to see City struggling.
If you compare the defensive output of Ilkay Gundogan against Leicester City (bottom) with Fernandinho’s performance against Everton (top), then you can see that Fernandinho’s actions are both more centralised and advanced than the German international’s, suggesting they are carried out in more effective areas.
If Ralph Hasenhüttl is to continue Southampton in their upturn of form, then he should look to exploit the hole left by Fernandinho. The problem, though, is that since his arrival the former RB Leipzig manager has looked to set his team up in a 3-4-3 formation with a double pivot in the central midfield behind a front three.
Preferring Oriel Romeu as the holding midfielder, Hasenhüttl has opted for Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg as the more progressive member of the midfield two. However, with only a two in an area that is almost certain to be populated by a three – not to mention the fact that two of these three will be Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva – the Southampton manager might be persuaded to mix things up and adopt the 4-3-3 that he utilised when he was at Ingolstadt.
If he does this, he could deploy a classic number 10 between the double pivot and the front three and look to cause City trouble in the areas where Fernandinho would usually be deployed.
It was the best of teams. It was the worst of teams. But even with their relative changes of fortune, it will still be a tough ask for Southampton to beat Pep Guardiola’s City.