Watford’s 2-1 win over Southampton exposed a high-press problem Manchester City can take advantage of in this weekend’s FA Cup quarter-final clash at St Marys.
Pep Guardiola’s meetings with Ralph Hasenhüttl this season have been a hard one to read. The Austrian has drawn both fixtures, with his players showing their quality, but each time City fans have left the game feeling their side should have got more.
Back in September, City had recovered well from an early-season setback against Tottenham Hotspur with three consecutive Premier League wins, scoring 11 goals in the process. And next up was the visit of Hasenhüttl’s side to the Etihad Stadium.
With a notoriously shoddy record in east Manchester, many expected this to be a walkover for the in-form City. However, Southampton limited City to just one shot on target in a 0-0 draw and could have even stolen all three points themselves if Jon Moss didn’t overturn a contentiously given penalty against Kyle Walker.
It was a similar story when the two sides met at St Mary’s in late January. City enjoyed a staggering 75% possession, but after Aymeric Laporte had responded to Kyle Walker-Peters’ early opener, the Blues failed to find that all-important winner – ending a run of 12 consecutive Premier League wins.
They’ve become quite the kryptonite for Guardiola, but there will have to be a winner in Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final, whether that’s in normal time, extra time or – what City fans will dread – penalties.
The Saints have lost their last three in the Premier League and are on a poor run of form, with a particular trend in last Saturday’s defeat to Watford highlighting an area Guardiola will look to exploit – their vulnerability with a high press.
On the day, Cucho Hernandez scored both goals for the Hornets, but they came from lapses in concentration across Southampton’s backline and the pressing capabilities of the Colombian. For the first it was Mohammed Salisu, for the second it was Walker-Peters, but on both occasions, the targeted press created a big chance.
Guardiola’s side – alongside Liverpool – are the masters at that particular skill, so why was that not effective when the two sides have met previously? The simple answer is, City had all the ball.
That will likely not change this time around, but the personnel Guardiola deploys could alter slightly. The Catalan has constantly maintained that Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus are City’s most effective pressers, and Sunday could present an opportunity for them to showcase that and spring themselves back onto the manager’s radar.
Southampton will surely be fast out of the blocks, with the FA Cup the only thing left for them to play for this season. If that happens, there will be opportunities for City’s frontmen to put pressure on the centre-backs and create clear-cut opportunities.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.