Southampton – Manchester City: Manchester City March On Towards Wembley Way (1-4)
Pep Guardiola was deeply aware of Southampton’s threat ahead of kickoff, foreshadowing a tense clash. Manchester City’s class might have pulled them clear of the home team at the final reckoning, but they did not book their spot in the last four of the FA Cup without a fight.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
The exits of Jannik Vestergaard and Danny Ings from the south coast in the summer stuck to a pattern that has often confined Southampton to the lower reaches of the top flight. Yet, abating fears of falling foul of the drop zone, they have topped expectation to climb to tenth place in the standings. Victims of three straight losses in the Premier League, their season is on the verge of petering out. But should they avoid defeat for a third time this season against their guests, it would be their finest feat to date.
Striving for a classic treble, Manchester City have met their match. Liverpool sit one point off of the top of the table where the reigning champions’ buffer has drastically shrunk. Indeed, the three elite English clubs still hold a firm stake in football’s most historic knockout tournament, but City’s recent heritage speaks well of their prospects. Last winning the FA Cup in 2019 to seal a unique domestic treble, they now sought to get back to the final four of the competition for the fourth year on the spin.
Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhüttl set up his men in their classic 4-4-2 system. He made four changes to the starting eleven he picked a week ago for the team’s last outing at home to Watford: a pair in the back four and two more upfront. Kyle Walker-Peters moved over to the left back slot to make room for Tino Livramento, and Jack Stephens joined Mohammed Salisu centrally. Adam Armstrong and Shane Long then made up the front two place of Ché Adams and Will Smallbone.
Pep Guardiola likewise rotated. He also brought four new men into the fold, keen to return to winning ways after a goalless draw with Crystal Palace. Zack Steffen deputized once again between the posts, coming in for Ederson. In the middle of the park, Ilkay Gündogan stepped in for Bernardo Silva. Only Jack Grealish kept his spot in the lineup among the front three, but here he operated down the middle. Raheem Sterling flanked the summer signing to his left, and Gabriel Jesus acted as the right winger.
Hasenhüttl’s heavy metal opening
True to form, Hasenhüttl has aptly strategized in previous duels with City, mixing and matching approaches to present new challenges to the league leaders. At the Etihad in September, he tinkered with the role of Oriol Romeu to switch between his classic 4-2-2-2 shape and a 5-2-3 block. At the St. Mary’s Stadium in January, a dogged deep 4-4-2 formation held out for the lion’s share of the contest to end City’s 12 match winning streak. So how would the Austrian test their resolve this time around?
In the end, the Southampton manager went back to first principles. An aggressively high 4-2-2-2 system sought to shut down City’s buildup from kickoff. The front two split attention between the central defenders and the single pivot, Rodri. Lateral passes along the first line of attack to Steffen, John Stones, or Aymeric Laporte were a key pressing trigger, while traps on the flanks were common.
The central midfielder on the side of the ball would move higher to offer cover behind the front two, whereas his partner dropped off diagonally to act as a shield in front of the back four. Thanks to extra support from the ball near fullback, the winger gained backing from his teammates to turn over the play. The winger on the other side of the field then lurked higher to offer an outlet on the break. These automatisms have been problematic in the past for Pep, but City came out with a clever plan of action.
3rd minute: pressing trap from Southampton. Laporte’s lateral pass along the backline to Stones is a cue for Adam Armstrong to press the ball while Long keeps an eye on Rodri. Mohammed Elyounoussi then sprints out diagonally at Walker to tee up the wide pressing trap. Walker-Peters takes care of de Bruyne, who rotates out to the flank, and the central midfielders stagger themselves asymmetrically.
Rotate and switch
Over recent weeks, City’s left edge has shown outstanding fluidity. In this game, it was often the basis for their initial headway into enemy territory. Grealish roamed deeper, while the movement of João Cancelo, Sterling, Gündogan, and de Bruyne worked in tandem to rotate play through the halfspace.
9th minute: buildup sequence from Manchester City. Grealish drops into the left halfspace to exploit the room behind Romeu, whose coverage of Rodri generates a pocket ahead of the back four. Sterling moves in to pin Stephens, creating room for de Bruyne to receive a layoff before finding Gündogan.
Pep’s men then sought to hit the same zone of the pitch: the ballfar flank. Mohamed Elyounoussi often fell back to shield de Bruyne, but City could still sweep diagonally from wing to wing with the pairing of Walker and Jesus. So, it was no shock to see this dynamic at the heart of the match’s opening goal.
A switch to the right flank drew Walker-Peters and Elyounoussi to double up on Jesus. Sterling briefly pinned Mohammed Salisu, forcing the back four to lose compactness in the halfspace, where de Bruyne struck. Stephens swept smartly across the ground to cut out his threaded pass, but his hacked clearance wreaked havoc. Jesus promptly picked up the pieces ahead of the red and white shirts, squaring the ball into the path of Sterling, whose strike handed City the lead in the 12th minute.
Sloppiness sees Saints respond
But City lost their rhythm, giving Southampton chances to threaten. Quick transitions with indented wingers in a narrow front four followed their usual principles but wastefulness in the box let their guests off the hook. Indeed, it was a messy end to the half that put the tie in the balance at the break.
Stuart Armstrong slipped the ball beyond the back four, where Elyounoussi had roamed free to face up 1-on-1 with Steffen. The goalkeeper forced his direct opponent away from the goal line into driving a flat cutback along the penalty area. But in a misfortunate series of events, Laporte turned the ball into the back of his own net. On the stroke of half time, the hosts had drawn themselves level.
Kevin De Bruyne: "I think the first 20 minutes and the last half an hour we did well. In between, we made too many stupid mistakes and even with their goal, we should have just played it out - there were 30 seconds to go until half-time..."— City Xtra (@City_Xtra) March 20, 2022
Thankfully for City, Southampton returned the favor just past the hour mark. Grealish threaded the ball into Jesus, whose clever contortion of his body drew a careless foul from Salisu in the box. De Bruyne stepped up from twelve yards, driving the ensuing penalty past Fraser Forster into the net.
Both managers made double substitutions off the back of de Bruyne’s goal. Guardiola swapped Grealish with Phil Foden, and Jesus made way for Riyad Mahrez on the right flank. In the same vein, Hasenhüttl brought on two men in the frontline. Adams and Armando Broja replaced the pair of strikers on the field, keen to infuse fresh legs into the outfit from the front and force the issue.
Clinical City seal the deal
Yet, the aggression from the front waned, and City ruthlessly exploited their hosts’ flagging energy. From a throw-in high up the right wing, Rodri, de Bruyne, Foden, and Mahrez linked up effortlessly to tease Southampton’s block. Seeking to stem the flow of City’s confidence, Salisu cut out a dinked pass from the Belgian, teeing up an effort for Foden. Out of nowhere, he thrashed a strike at the goal from outside the box, beating Forster to double the advantage. Surely the visitors were in the clear?
In the 78th minute, the contest was indeed over. Another sweeping sequence of play saw Cancelo pick up the ball on the left flank. The fullback clipped a pass with the outside of his right boot to split the central defenders, finding Gündogan. His teammate duly chested down the ball, laying off a pass into the path of Mahrez, whose clinical shot rounded off the scoring. City march on to Wembley.
Another defeat ends a disappointing month for Southampton, yet their campaign still reads positively. Hasenhüttl’s duels with City have stressed how flagging intensity can undo his outfit. Should he find more ways to offset this issue, the Austrian can aspire to exceed expectations again next campaign.
Manchester City were far from their best in this clash, but their individual quality in slicker spells was telling. Pep will be glad to have seen the back of Southampton this campaign, but the prospect of a semifinal fixture with Liverpool asserts how his men must regain their groove quickly after the break.
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