After seeing Southampton collect only two points from his opening three games, Mauricio Pochettino now comes up against the Premier League champions Manchester City knowing that the visitors cannot afford a major slip up between now and the end of the season if they want to avoid handing the title back to their neighbours.
The game presents an interesting tactical battle between two managers who like to adopt similar styles and it will be interesting to see if the encouraging displays seen of late by the Saints can be turned into the most satisfying of wins for Pochettino.
Perhaps most significantly for Manchester City, the surprisingly early elimination of Ivory Coast from the African Cup of Nations will see Yaya Touré return to their midfield. Touré has been, in my opinion, the most important player for City in recent years and was the standout performer on their way to last year’s Premier League title. Defensively solid in front of the back four, he is also a tremendous threat going forward, driving menacingly at defences with the ability to either play the perfect defence splitting pass, or score a terrific goal from range.
To say it’s a blow to see him back in the Manchester City team for this game is an understatement. Similarly influential is the City captain Vincent Kompany, who faces a late fitness test to see if he’s available to return after injury. This would again be a blow to Southampton who themselves will give late fitness tests to Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne, and Gastón Ramírez, in the hope that all three will be available for the game.
Regardless of who plays for either side, it is imperative that Pochettino continues to select a high pressure, high energy style for his side, puts City under pressure and attempts to force mistakes from them, in the hope of allowing us to control possession and create the chances needed to win the game.
Losing Clyne and Shaw for this game would, of course, hamper these efforts and both full backs are quick and full of the energy required to implement this game plan, whilst also being better defensively than their prospective replacements, Frazer Richardson, and the defensively liable Danny Fox.
Losing Ramírez, however, may not be the massive concern it fears appears. Having looked slightly off the pace in recent games, the Saints have looked better when Adam Lallana has entered as a replacement for him in the last two games. After Jay Rodriguez’s exceptionally promising display on the left wing last week, it could be that Ramírez’s absence benefits the team for tomorrow.
In the long run, Pochettino should rest Ramírez and allow him to regain full fitness, hopefully leading to him producing a consistent run of performances that he is capable of. The games against Arsenal and Newcastle spring to mind as examples of the Uruguayan at his best.
It is fairly obvious that if Manchester City produce their best football tomorrow then there is only likely to be one winner. The talent available to them is clearly better than that of the promising Southampton side that they will face. However, the Manchester City of this year are not the same as the Manchester City of last, and having pushed them so close in the opening game of the season at the Etihad, there is no reason why we can’t push them similarly hard at St. Mary’s.
I would expect City to do the same things that they usually do, pushing the opposition up the pitch, putting pressure on them, and attempting to dominate possession, exactly the same things that Pochettino has been getting Southampton to do since his arrival, which is what makes this match-up potentially so fascinating.
Roberto Mancini has preferred the poaching style of Edin Džeko to the tireless workman-like Carlos Tevez in recent weeks, and it would be no disappointment to see him continue with this selection policy tomorrow, as Tevez brings more to the table for me than the undoubtedly talented Džeko. Regardless of who plays up front, the Saints defence must be more solid than in recent weeks, particularly from set pieces.
Against Wigan last week, the defence kept the Latics largely at bay during open play, bar one attempt from Franco Di Santo, but their inability to defend corners meant that the home side were able to snatch an undeserved 2-2 draw, and it is imperative that Saints sort this out tomorrow. Maybe the answer to that will be the long-awaited debut of Vegard Forren who after playing 45 minutes for Norway on Wednesday must surely be in line for at least a spot on the bench.
I believe that Saints have the ability to cause Manchester City problems tomorrow, with Rickie Lambert’s presence likely to unsettle any defence. Sadly I fear for our defence and their ability to keep City quiet, especially if Shaw and Clyne are unavailable to play. Defensive uncertainty, coupled with City’s determination to keep the pressure on Manchester United, especially with Yaya Touré’s return, could see us fall short again in the search for Pochettino’s first win.