The Saints marched home happy after being gifted a point today.
There were no huge surprises to be seen with the starting line ups of the two teams. Kompany was given his first Premier League start of the season for City with Aguero returning to the starting XI after spending some time on the bench. Southampton also gave a first Premier League start to Sam McQueen, the young full back who impressed with his performance against Inter on Thursday night.
City began the game with a 3-2-4-1 when they had the ball. Gundogan and Fernandinho acted in front of the central defenders with De Bruyne and Silva acting higher as a pair of number tens. Sterling and Sané offered the width for the side in a basic structure not too dissimilar to the one we saw Pep opt for against Everton.
Again, like the game against Everton, City defended in a 3-4-2-1 shape with Sterling and Sané dropping alongside Gundogan and Fernandinho to help protect the flanks. Silva and De Bruyne remained just ahead of this band of players with both of them willing to step up and help Aguero press the Southampton back-line (a very common feature for Pep teams, Iniesta often carried out this task in his great Barça side) creating a 3-4-1-2 defensive shape designed to force Southampton wide and/or long.
Southampton sprung no surprises, defending in a very narrow 4-3-3 shape that adapted to become a 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 depending on the position of the ball and Man City’s players. Credit must be given to the Saints as they were excellent in shifting to the ball-side and remaining tight and compact, allowing City little space and refusing to be stretched by quick switches of play.
The first half was poor, very poor. For me, there were three things that plagued the first half performance and contributed to City not registering a shot on target in the first half of a game for the first time this season. Poor occupation of the ten space, too many players stood outside of Southampton’s defensive block and too many players on the same horizontal line of play. These issues reared their head on numerous occasions in a dull first half. Part of this can be attributed to how tight Southampton kept their lines defensively but City didn’t help themselves. Too many times Aguero, Silva, De Bruyne and Sané or Sterling stood on the last line of defence leaving nobody to connect the play. The only place the ball can go is wide or backwards and that is exactly what happened and exactly why City created nothing in the first half.
At the start of the second half Iheanacho was introduced for De Bruyne and City moved to a new 3-1-4-2 shape. Iheanacho moved alongside Aguero up front whilst Silva and Gundogan acted deeper as central midfielders in front of the lone pivot Fernandinho. The spacing was much better with this system (as evidenced by the sharp upturn in the teams performance) with more players in advanced central areas leading to City creating more combinations and chances at the heart of the Southampton defence. The main reason for this, I believe, is Iheanacho. Apart from the goal his intelligence in terms of his positioning, run selection and ability to combine with other players in small spaces is exceptional. All of this shone through in the chance he and Gundogan worked between themselves midway through the second half. I know it doesn’t need to be said but this kid is a real talent and I hope he continues to flourish this season.
I haven’t mentioned the Stones blunder yet, because I don’t feel it’s worth analysing. It’s a miscommunication between him and Kompany as Vincent offers for the pass but then steps up and Stones makes a blind pass. It shouldn’t happen, but sometimes it does.
That leads me to my final word on the game: don’t be upset. Yes, five games without a win is less than ideal. But there is plenty of evidence from those performances that things will be back to normal very quickly. These mistakes happened at Barça, at Bayern and they will happen here as well. The more the team is groomed to play Pep’s way the less frequently these things will happen. I’d rather take some mistakes in the first 15 games of the season than the last – and I genuinely believe that when City hit the key part of the fixture list these issues will have been ironed out.