It was Manchester City’s first league match of the new season, and the defending champions started their campaign in a similar manner to how they won the league: going 1-2 down through a individual defensive error after leading 1-0, before fighting back to win 3-2.
Roberto Mancini didn’t continue with his intriguing pre-season experiment of setting City out in 3-man backline, instead reverting to the usual 4-2-3-1/4-2-2-2 formation that he regularly preferred in the previous campaign. There was only one surprise in his team selection, as new signing Jack Rodwell was given his City debut, starting ahead of Nigel de Jong in central midfield with Gareth Barry ruled out through injury.
Southampton manager Nigel Adkins sprung a surprise of his own, leaving last season’s Championship top scorer Ricky Lambert on the bench. Guly Do Prado was chosen as the sole forward in a 4-5-1 shape while new striking recruit Jay Rodriguez was shifted out to the left flank.
The diagram below reflects Edin Dzeko’s 14th minute introduction after key striker Sergio Aguero was forced to be substituted through a knee injury sustained in the 7th minute of the game.
Saints’ early energy
Southampton were getting themselves right in the faces of the defending champions in the opening minutes of the match, primarily down their left side thanks to the efforts of Rodriguez and captain Adam Lallana. The Saints were confident and accurate in their passing, and were very positive in this early stage of the game, looking to overcome City with their energy and determination.
In fact, before Augero suffered his knee injury, Southampton were definitely the better side with the territorial advantage. There was a significant break in the game due to Aguero’s treatment, and when the match was restarted, Southampton continued to dominate proceedings – possibly buoyed by the knowledge that City were temporarily down to 10 men with Aguero out-of-play still being treated.
Aguero was finally substituted in 14th minute for Dzeko and just a minute later, slightly against the run of play, Augero’s fellow Argentine striker Carlos Tevez won a penalty by cleverly drawing the foul with a smart turn in the box.
The build-up to the penalty highlighted both Southampton’s rigid defence, as well as City’s intelligent response. As the ball was cleared to Rodwell some 15 yards away from Southampton’s penalty box, the Southampton players naturally stepped up to form 2 distinct defensive lines: the deeper one consisting of 5 players and the other of 4.
Rodwell laid the ball off to David Silva, who immediately spotted teammate Samir Nasri unmarked, in between Southampton’s 2 defensive lines – a perfect literal example of what it means to “play in between the lines”. Tevez received the ball via a flick on from Nasri, and won the penalty.
Interestingly, Silva was the one to step up to take the penalty despite the presence of Tevez and Yaya Toure – two players who are more accustomed to taking penalties. Silva produced a limp, weak effort which was easily saved by Southampton’s goalkeeper Kelvin Davis.
City lead 1-0
Mancini looked staggered that his side hadn’t converted the penalty but City immediately took control of the game following Silva’s poor effort. Toure and Rodwell bossed the midfield with authority, pinging the ball to the likes of Silva, Nasri and Tevez to find openings in Southampton’s defence like they successfully did in winning the penalty.
Additionally, City grew more adventurous and had their fullbacks – Pablo Zabaleta on the right and Gael Clichy on the left – push forward to provide the width that their side would otherwise lack.
To their credit, Southampton’s wide midfielders Rodriguez and Jason Puncheon were generally able in tracking City’s fullbacks, an achievement that is slightly more impressive considering Puncheon’s and Rodriguez’s usual attacking instincts (Rodriguez is in fact a natural striker).
Southampton thus fell back into their 4-5-1 shape and looked to stay tight and compact, and hit City on the counterattack. Da Prado toiled alone up front admirably as he held up the ball whenever his side won possession back, and tried (but often failed) to pressure City’s central defenders into rash clearances.
The forced substitution of Aguero for Dzeko didn’t just result in City losing their top goalscorer from the previous season and their best finisher, it also meant a totally different type of striker leading the line. While Aguero is a willing runner capable of stretching defences with his pace or dropping deep as a playmaker or even a false 9, Dzeko is a more predictable player. The Bosnian striker serves as a targetman, and is a lot less mobile than the Argentine dynamo.
It was thus surprising to see Mancini not bring on a player as mobile as Aguero like Mario Balotelli – a player who has the tendency to play near the left touchline and stretch the play horizontally (but not 100% match-fit perhaps?) – because it meant tweaking the attributes of his forward line.
Dzeko undoubtedly has his own strengths, as he provided both teams with a clear reference point: City now had an obvious target for crosses in the event that their intricate play down the middle didn’t work, while Southampton had to deal with these two methods of attack.
Mancini must also have had put plenty of faith in Tevez’s non-stop, hard running style of play, as the former City exile was instrumental to his side’s attack throughout the first-half. Mancini’s constant preference for Silva and Nasri in nominal wide positions causes City to occasionally lack width in their attacks, especially when their fullbacks don’t venture forward. Tevez helped compensate for this problem as he often looked to work the channels.
City’s first goal arrived in the 40th minute through this route of attack when Nasri picked out Tevez on the right-sided channel, attacking the space between Southampton’s centre-backs Jos Hooiveld and Jose Fonte. Tevez continued with this tendency of pulling wide and dropping deep throughout the match (although he was less influential in the second-half), as shown in his ‘passes received’ diagram below.
In fact, City nearly doubled their lead when Tevez made a similar run and shot in the second minute of first-half additional time, and Davis spilled the ball but City couldn’t capitalise. Likewise, just before the half ended, City captain Vincent Kompany found Tevez hugging the right flank unmarked, but Toure failed to react quick enough to Tevez’s cross and the chance fell away.
Second-half: City continue to dominate
The two teams began the second-half in the same manner as they had ended the first: City clearly in control of the game and very nearly monopolising possession, while Southampton stuck to their disciplined defensive shape attempting to catch their opponent off-guard via a quick break.
City’s entire gameplan flowed through their two central midfielders, Rodwell and Toure. They attempted 93 and an amazing 130 passes at a success rate of 92% and 96% respectively, a clear indicator of how influential they were to their team in terms of keeping the ball and passing it on to their teammates in more advanced positions. The diagrams below paint a visual illustration of their importance.
A slight adaptation of City’s tactics occurred in the style of Dzeko’s play during the second-half. While he had previously been a static frontman in the first-half, he was more willing to attack the left flank in a similar way to how Tevez exploited the right touchline.
The passing diagram below compares the passes received by Dzeko in the first and second halves of the match. The passes he received in the second-half were mainly longer balls, evidence of his increased mobility during this time period where he shook off the attentions of his opposing defenders to make runs wide.
Silva’s wasteful finishing continued in the second-half when unmarked with a gaping net, he fired a shot against Davis’ crossbar. What’s of more tactical interest however, is that the chance came yet again from Tevez making an intelligent run down the right flank and crossing into the box. Southampton simply couldn’t deal with the off-the-ball movement of Tevez, and this was City’s most effective avenue of attack.
Adkins was brave enough to try to throw caution to the wind with a relatively early substitution, taking off Rodriguez for Lambert in the 55th minute. This meant that Do Prado was re-assigned to the left midfield role while Lambert took up the central striker position.
Just 4 minutes later, and Lambert had written himself onto the scoresheet with a brilliant bending shot around City goalkeeper Joe Hart. The technique Lambert displayed was exquisite, and the opening for his shot came about after some lucky pinball-like deflections and rebounds in City’s penalty box, but what created the whole sequence of play leading up to Southampton’s equaliser was their left-sided build-up play.
As Lallana carried the ball forward down the left flank, Do Prado had already moved himself into the penalty box, and Saints left-back Daniel Fox bombed down the touchline serving as a decoy run to create space for Lallana.
This was Southampton’s tactic upon winning back possession: transforming their 4-5-1 shape to a 4-4-2 with Rodriguez or Do Prado advancing from the left midfield position to a striker’s, while Lallana shifted wide left. In other words, Lallana was playing as a central winger – a player who moves from a central to a wide position to create overloads in that wide area. Lallana’s role was pivotal to Southampton’s attacks, and Lambert’s goal was the tangible result of Adkins’ successful tactic.
Southampton then took the lead in the 68th minute through another substitute, Steven Davis, who had entered the field of play just 3 minutes prior to scoring. This goal would undoubtedly be attributed to Rodwell’s only mistake of the match when he carelessly gave the ball away to Lallana instantly after a City corner, helping Saints into a very advantageous counterattacking position.
Again – although perhaps coincidentally given that the attack was a result of an opposition player’s mistake rather than a planned tactic – the attack occurred down the left flank with Lallana leading the charge. Similar to Lambert’s shot, Davis’ goal was another curling right-footed effort from the left side beyond Hart.
Truly, Southampton were recorded as having directed 52% of their attacks down their left side – the most out of any Premiership teams from this weekend’s games, establishing how Adkins had his side purposely concentrate their offensive plays along the left touchline, with Lallana the key player to this movement.
City’s déjà vu
City were in an unwanted familiar position by this point: 1-2 down against a newly-promoted side with little more than 20 minutes of the game remaining. Mancini had to shake things up, and did so by removing the unproductive Silva for Balotelli, but it was Dzeko who levelled the score on 72 minutes after lashing home a loose ball in the penalty box following a City corner.
The game really started to open up at this point, as further good work from Lallana on Southampton’s left resulted in decent chances for Puncheon and then Lallana himself, before Toure surged forward fearsomely on the counter, fed Nasri the ball on City’s right, only for Balotelli to slice Nasri’s cross wide at the far post.
Unsurprisingly, City pushed forward relentlessly in search of the winning goal and it finally arrived from a cross by Clichy, who was now City’s sole representative on the whole left flank and was virtually playing as a left winger.
Nasri’s crashing volley was the goal that sealed the game, and his shot was from a central position in the middle of Southampton’s penalty box. It was the kind of movement which Nasri had been employing throughout the match, being handed a free role within the usually-strict system that Mancini favours.
Nasri’s creative freedom meant that City’s other players had to largely adhere to their positions, the most obvious being City’s other playmaker Silva, who stuck mostly to his right-sided position and didn’t cut infield as much as he used to last season.
Mark of Champions?
Adkins would be disappointed his side left the Etihad Stadium empty-handed, but will naturally be pleased by the Saints’ high chance conversion rate and their disciplined defensive shape. At the same time, Premier League fans would’ve been equally impressed at how Southampton managed to occasionally overwhelm the defending champions with their zest and enthusiasm. The season is a race, not a marathon however, and Saints fans will be wary of expecting too much from their team after a single good display.
Perhaps more interesting is the reaction to City’s latest comeback act. Many have pointed out that a repeat of these performances – a slightly shaky backline, individual defensive errors and an inability to take their chances – highlight weaknesses in Mancini’s side.
Yet if it were the team from the red half of Manchester that produced this display, observers would’ve hailed the fightback as ‘a mark of champions’. To be fair, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team have proven themselves over the years through their countless comebacks, and if Manchester City want to successfully defend their Premier League crown and establish themselves as a national and European footballing force, it’s time for them to consistently demonstrate their winning mentality and never-say-die attitude.