It is rare that I sit at my laptop after a game at a loss what to write. I truly thought that, after the recent improvements in City’s performances, I wouldn’t have to dig into the set of superlatives that spring to mind after this performance. How wrong I was.
Dean Smith made no changes to the side that lost at Liverpool, Tim Krul making do with a place on the bench and Lukas Rupp making a return to a bench that still looked very light on attacking options.
Somewhat unreasonably, Ralph Hasenhuttl seemed to have watched City’s recent games and his team was set up to counter accordingly:
Stop Milot Rashica, stop City.
The Kosovan has been City’s most effective attacking outlet by some margin in recent weeks. Southampton made sure that he had no space, no room to turn. Whenever Brandon Williams looked for the out ball up the line, a red shirt was there first.
Get after Williams.
It is easy to forget how young Williams is. All young players have bad games and this was certainly one to forget for the loanee and Southampton were unrelenting. With Rashica well marshalled, Williams had no outlet when he got the ball at the back and when beaten by the movement of the players around him, they were ready for his diving challenges and able to skip over and round them with ease.
Don’t fall for the trap. In recent weeks, City have been happy to concede the ball in wide areas and defend the ball in the box. Instead of the usual driven crosses, Southampton played a succession of dinked and looping crosses into the box – much more difficult to defend.
The result was a first half as poor as City have produced this season.
Whenever they won the ball at the back and tried to move out of defence, they gave the second ball away. Whilst the Southampton pressure wasn’t exactly relentless, they produced a number of efforts on goal. Whenever they were on target, they found the figure of Angus Gunn looming large.
Poor shooting or good positioning? You choose.
There were few bright spots for City. A battling run by Teemu Pukki who cut back to Josh Sargent. The American’s shot was a little half-hearted but the block came to Billy Gilmour whose shot went out for a corner. Normann played some good passes when City managed to string more than two passes together – a couple of chipped balls into dangerous areas were easily foiled.
When the goal came, it was inevitably down the City left.
Williams, forced into a sliding tackle once again, saw the ball bounce straight to a Southampton player. Gunn got a foot to the ball to clear only for it to rebound off Max Aarons into the path of Che Adams. His first shot was blocked on the line but as he lay on the floor he was able to waft his leg at the ball and play it over the City defence. 1-0.
The hope at halftime was that, much like the home game, Smith would invigorate the team and they would emerge in the second half a more effective unit.
Sadly, this was not the case and Smith could be seen in deep conversation with his lieutenants on how to best utlilse his limited substitute options. A shape change was clearly needed, and that’s what he did. It was no real surprise to see Rashica going off but Normann had looked probably the least bad of the City midfield trio.
Regular readers of my reports, if there are such things, may be aware that I like Rupp as a footballer. However, even I reflected that Southampton would hardly be quaking in their boots at the sight of the German and Pierre Lees-Melou coming on after 70 minutes as replacements.
Smith pushed Sargent much closer to Pukki and used a midfield diamond and the results were immediate.
The reason I like Rupp is that he is a neat, tidy, efficient footballer. Within seconds of coming on, he did something no City midfielder had managed all game. He received a ball from the back, kept it and played it to a yellow shirt.
The effects were dramatic. For 10 minutes City had a spell of sustained pressure. Lees-Melou played some curling balls into the box – one was just too far behind Hanley and the City skipper couldn’t direct his effort towards a gaping goal.
Rupp then player Sargent in who oh-so-nearly turned Ward-Prowse. Instead, he was forced wide where he won a throw from which a weak Ben Gibson header was cleared. Minutes later, another Sargent run played Pukki in who was left surrounded by Southampton players yet still managed to force a corner.
Smith withdrew Gilmour on 79 for Kieran Dowell. The Scot had had a forgettable game, his replacement did little in his short cameo to push his claim for a start.
On 82, our favourite referee Mr Simon Hooper saw fit to award a free-kick for a clear dive by Adams. The replay showed it was a dive. Andy Townsend called it as a dive. One wonders what VAR actually does?
Fortunately, the free-kick from Ward-Prowse was over with Gunn appearing to have it covered.
All hopes of an unlikely draw were extinguished on 87 minutes. Gibson played a woeful ball out of defence. Elyounoussi shot and Gunn parried it for a corner. When the ball came in it was well cleared but found Romeu on the edge of the area.
The Spaniard hit a screamer on the half volley. Gunn had no chance but Williams, to compound his afternoon to forget, ducked under the incoming shot when if he had stood his ground he may have deflected it away.
So little to take joy from this game. The lack of options on the City bench was starkly illustrated – credit to Smith that when he made a change, it was effective. Black mark though for leaving it until 70 minutes. An earlier change may have got something from the game.
In the absence of Idah, it is clear that City’s attack is one dimensional – stop Rashica, stop City.
Hopefully, Smith can find some more tactical tweaks for the critical, yet increasingly futile feeling games ahead.