Ruben Sellés hinted in his pre-Manchester City press conference that his Southampton side may have a surprise for their opponents for their Saturday late kick-off, and that they did.
After the game, in which City ultimately ran out 4-1 winners, Pep Guardiola said: “I give a lot of credit to Southampton in the first half. Their game-plan was brilliant”. Guardiola was not exaggerating either; it really was a game-plan that nullified City’s ability to threaten, whilst keeping Southampton dangerous going forward.
For 44 minutes – until Erling Haaland inevitably broke the deadlock – Southampton were the better side. Had it culminated in a positive result for the Saints, we may well be talking in great detail about a Sellés master plan which, in essence, revolved around preventing City’s double-pivot of John Stones and Rodri from receiving the ball.
City lined up in their seemingly newfound favoured shape. The 3-2-4-1 in which Stones acts as a central midfield player alongside Rodri, with Manuel Akanji, Rúben Dias and Nathan Aké in the back three behind them. Ahead of the midfield base, İlkay Gündoğan and Kevin De Bruyne are allowed to float into the half-spaces as and when they please, whilst Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez provide the width. Spearheading the attack was the returning Haaland, who scored twice at St Mary’s – the second an impressive bicycle kick.
To combat this, Sellés concocted a plan that looked to prevent City from building up through Rodri and Stones, as they so often look to do. One of the interesting things about this was that Southampton started in a narrow 4-3-3 shape that changed to a 4-4-2 after ten minutes. In the ten minutes in the 4-3-3 shape, Southampton’s front three of Theo Walcott, Carlos Alcaraz and Kamaldeen Sulemana effectively went man-for-man up against Manchester City’s back three. They pressed them high and, through this marking, made it difficult for City to build from the back. In a reverse from what you traditionally see in a 4-3-3, the front three were very narrow whilst the midfield three were wide – James Ward-Prowse holding the centre of the pitch, with Roméo Lavia and Moi Elyounoussi shaping up on the right and left of him respectively.
When City did bypass Southampton’s narrow front three and played wide, initially Lavia or Elyounoussi would engage the ball receiver and hold them up to give either Walcott or Sulemana time to recover. These attackers would sprint back to then engage the man on the ball, allowing the midfield player to slowly move back towards the middle of the pitch to enter a 4-5-1 defensive structure.
What is particularly interesting about this tactic is that it was clearly something that had been well thought out and worked on at length on the training pitch, but that after ten minutes there was an obvious switch in shape that was also clearly planned. Perhaps the decisive factor in this was Stones’ role. Often this season, City have set up with a back four defensively and then in possession they have become a back three, with a full-back stepping into midfield. However, more recently – and certainly in Saturday’s game – Stones simply lined up as a midfield player, never dropping into a conventional right-back position.
After ten minutes, Sulemana moved inside to become a second striker, with Elyounoussi moving from a left centre-midfield berth to become a left midfielder and Walcott becoming a right midfielder. Southampton had switched to a fairly basic 4-4-2 shape, but with the pressing intensity remaining higher than you would generally associate with this formation in its traditional use.
The central midfield pair of Ward-Prowse and Lavia squeezed up to press Stones and Rodri when City’s backline had the ball meaning that, between the six of them, Alcaraz, Sulemana, Ward-Prowse, Lavia, Elyounoussi and Walcott, formed a hexagon around the City duo, thus limiting the supply into them. City escaped this on a few occasions by playing diagonal balls to isolate Grealish or Mahrez against their full-back but did not get much joy from this tactic in the first half.
It was also no coincidence that Elyounoussi – Southampton’s wide player with the best defensive understanding – started in the left central midfield position and moved to the wide left position. It was the Norweigian’s job to stop De Bruyne from getting too much time and space in his favourite right half-space position. It was an effective tactic for 44 minutes. De Bruyne, though, is an incredibly intelligent footballer and he wandered to the other side of the pitch in the 44th minute, knowing that Elyounoussi would not follow him across the pitch. He received the ball in the left half-space and picked Haaland out with a cross. After an incredibly positive half of football Southampton found themselves a goal behind at the break.
It was an especially difficult sucker-punch to endure given that Southampton had not simply defended for their lives, but were actually the far more threatening of the two sides in the first half. Sulemana’s move to a central striker role after ten minutes gave Sellés’ side a real threat and kept City’s defence honest. Due to Sulemana’s blistering pace, they knew that they could not squeeze too high and suffocate Southampton as they could not afford to give Sulemana too much space to break in behind.
Sellés does not yet trust Sulemana’s pressing so this may also be a reason that he was deployed as a striker. Given the responsibility of, say, Elyounoussi, Sellés knew that there would be occasions when Sulemana neglected his defensive responsibilities. By playing further up the pitch, any lapses in the press are less likely to be punishable by conceding a chance.
Southampton did not break their transfer record to sign Sulemana in January for his defensive capabilities, though. In the 15th minute, the 21-year-old Ghanaian showed exactly what he’s all about. City had a corner and tried to work the ball to De Bruyne on the edge of the box. Sulemana smelt blood and anticipated the pass, using his pace to nip in ahead of the Belgian. All of a sudden, Sulemana was away with the length of the St Mary’s pitch ahead of him and only a rapidly retreating Nathan Aké between him and Ederson in the City goal. Sulemana’s pace was never in question but Aké defended well, keeping the forward on his left foot all the way to the edge of the box. Sulemana slowed and sped up again a couple of times to try and get away from Aké and just as he looked to enter the box his touch let him down and Ederson snatched the ball off his toes. It felt like a huge moment in the match and highlighted Sulemana’s potential, but also his rawness. If he had composure to match his pace and quick feet, Southampton would have landed a real blow to City. Instead, his final product let him down for what wouldn’t be the last time in the match.
Once City had taken the lead through Haaland it was always going to be incredibly difficult for Southampton to cause them problems. Southampton’s game, especially since Sellés has come in, has been focused primarily on what they do out of possession. This has come at the expense of their attacking play. Is it time to take the handbrake off and compromise their work out of possession to increase their goal threat?
Since Sellés became the main man at St Mary’s, Southampton have scored just six goals in eight games in the league – three of which came in one game against Tottenham Hotspur. The attacking players have often been picked based on their familiarity with pressing triggers and the automations that came under Ralph Hasenhüttl – their ability to press effectively giving them a starting position over more exciting players who can make things happen. With eight games left to save their Premier League status, is it time to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at it?
Perhaps throwing the kitchen sink is an exaggeration. Southampton do not need to go all out attack – or even close to this. What they do need to do is take more risks. Against West Ham United, Southampton started the better of the two sides and got into dangerous areas. The problem being that, when they got there, their attacking four had been picked on the merits of their pressing and not their creativity or output in the final third. The starting attacking four that day (Walcott, Elyounoussi, Sékou Mara, Stuart Armstrong) had a combined total of two goals and four assists this season.
The whole concept of gegenpressing football is to keep the ball as far away from your goal as possible, with the intention being to win the ball high up the pitch in more threatening positions. Southampton are very poor defensively and this is one of the reasons there is so much focus on the ability of the front pressers to defend from the front – if you can keep the ball up the other end then your poor defence is better protected. The irony of this is that, when this initial press is beaten, the aforementioned weak defence – which the whole system is designed to protect – are left incredibly exposed and outnumbered. There is a fine line between perfect execution and disaster (see Southampton 0 – 9 Leicester City, Manchester United 9 – 0 Southampton).
You could argue that perhaps instead of pressing, Southampton would be better off sitting in a low block and being hard to beat. The problem with this is Southampton in a low block aren’t hard to beat at all. They don’t defend their box well enough, are susceptible to crosses, and find it difficult to get out on the occasions they do retreat towards their own goal.
Sellés has spoken a lot about how his Southampton side are forming an identity and that this group needs time. Time is one thing that Southampton do not have. It is also too late to concern themselves with establishing an identity. The only commodity they benefit from at this stage is Premier League points.
Due to the nature of their style, Southampton often do better against the bigger sides. The initiative to win the game is not on them and they are better in this position. When they play sides around them or sides outside the top six at home they really struggle to take the game to their opponents. You can’t counter-press a team that lets you have the ball and sit deep. Not effectively, anyway.
Southampton’s next game is one such fixture against Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace at home. This game is as must-win as they come – especially when you consider it is followed by a trip to The Emirates. Sellés surely must be more ambitious with his starting line-up. With uncertainty over the availability of Che Adams given his recent absence through injury, it could be the perfect time to unleash Paul Onuachu. Southampton should not just play Onuachu, though, they must mould their attacking play around getting the best out of the 6 foot 7 striker.
To get the best out of Onuachu, Southampton will have to change their approach. He will not press perfectly from the front, nor will he run in behind. But, if Southampton approach the game on the front-foot, he shouldn’t have to. To enjoy success with Onuachu leading the line there are two key things Southampton must do: get crosses into dangerous areas and get bodies around him. The most effective way to do this that gets Southampton’s most dangerous players in the right areas is surely a 4-2-3-1 shape with Sulemana on the left, Alcaraz as the advanced midfielder, and Walcott on the right. The pace out wide, coupled with Alcaraz’s astute work off of Onuachu has the potential to be effective.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles started at right-back against City with Kyle Walker-Peters on the left. However, to provide service to Onuachu the right-footed Walker-Peters should play on the right and the left-footed Romain Perraud should come into the side at left-back. Sulemana being right-footed but playing on the left gives enough variation to make Southampton’s attacking play unpredictable enough to unlock a defence, as he can wander inside with the ball whilst Perraud overlaps to provide the width. Alternatively, both Walker-Peters and Perraud make good underlapping runs and can penetrate the opposition defence through surging inside the defending full-back.
It is understandable that Onuachu was not fancied against City, but – with eight games left – it is time to trust him. He has not had the best start to life at Southampton but he has also not really had the chance to get going. Onuachu should still have confidence in front of goal given his 17 goals in Belgium already this season prior to his January move. And Southampton’s most creative players have the tools to provide Onuachu with service – they must adopt an approach that allows them to regularly get in situations and positions to do so.
It feels like do or die for Southampton now, and Sellés will surely want his team to show real fight. Yes, Southampton’s out of possession work may help them grind out a couple of results against better sides, but they must take the initiative and find a way to score against the teams they are scrapping for their lives with. 1-0 defeats to West Ham, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Wolves and Palace this season show where the problems lie. Southampton simply must find a way to be more of a threat in attack, starting with a Palace side who will be brimming with confidence after putting five past Leeds.