Saturday, 10 September 2016

PREVIEW: Arsenal v Southampton

Unavailable: Arsenal – Ramsey, Gabriel, Mertesacker, Welbeck, Jenkinson
                      Southampton – Boufal, Pied

On 15 September 2012, Southampton fans arrived at the Emirates on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but the manner in which their team imploded was bleak and unseemly. Saints were harnessed by naivety and nerves, and Arsenal punished them with the efficiency they reserve for either end of the season. It was a difficult sight as the visitors crumpled under Arsenal's sumptuous attacking play - confirming another week without a Premier League win. Saints are now experiencing their third philosophy re-brand since that point, but they face the same issue as the team selected by Nigel Adkins that day - they are yet to taste a league win in mid-September.

The times are vastly different, but should Saints pick up a predictable honourable loss at the hands of the Gunners, then it will heap pressure onto the opening Europa League clash as well as the home encounter with Swansea for Claude Puel. The Frenchman has not endeared himself to Saints fans as of yet, and he is unable to call upon the glitz and glamour of club record signing until next month. He requires a tonic to see his side on their way, but needs to be brave - especially this weekend.

If Arsenal turn the screw then they could punish Saints with their fluid play and ingenuity - but Puel must tell his team to front up and not cower in their defensive third. While playing away at United, Puel's men had more possession than their hosts but were unable to convert any of it into meaningful opportunities. This time round, they will be watching Arsenal stroke the ball around - a lot - but while the diamond à la Claude lacks tenacity and directness, the one thing it certainly should facilitate is the ability to break through pace. Nathan Redmond and Shane Long could have a field day against the Gunners' home defence if they are given some half-decent clipped balls into either channel. Dušan Tadić will also have to bust a gut in order to arrive late in the box when Saints charge away from their own half. The Serbian is accustomed to drifting around the edge of box while Saints try to break down lesser teams at St Mary's, but on Saturday, he will need to spray the ball forward before throwing himself towards Petr Čech's goal at the Emirates.

The Gunners remain vulnerable, and despite a heartening win at Watford prior to the international break coupled with two marquee signings, the discontent is palpable. If the same pattern of constant disappointment had repeatedly happened at any other "big" club, a change would be necessary, but such is the hold that Arsène Wenger has at the Emirates, that is yet to happen. A poisonous atmosphere began to rear its ugly head at the end of last season though, and you do start to believe that when Wenger finally departs, his standing amongst the majority of fans will have disintegrated.

As ever, if they cannot break Saints down in the early stages and Puel's men can break quickly and decisively, the Gunners fans will vent frustrations towards Wenger. Here's hoping one of his disciples stood to the right of the home dugout will topple the Arsenal stalwart on Saturday.

Key Battles

Xhaka v Davis: Granit Xhaka has been heralded as the "hard" man that Arsenal have required since Patrick Vieira departed the club, but he is in the midst of a slow start in North London. Francis Coquelin has played well in the centre, yet he in all kindness, has most likely hit a ceiling in his career as an Arsenal squad player. Therefore, Xhaka has been looked to as someone who could make the position their own. So far, he has seemed pretty yet ineffective. On Saturday, Steven Davis will have to bypass the Swiss in his vital role as a midfield connector to gain access to Messrs Tadić, Long and Redmond, with Xhaka no doubt keen to stamp his authority.

Monreal v Soares: Nacho Monreal has improved a great deal in the last few years but he remains the weak link in that Arsenal backline. The Spaniard is awkward on the turn, and Cédric Soares could exploit this if he ekes out enough space to run into behind down the right wing.

Possible Line-ups

Arsenal: Čech – Bellerín, Mustafi, Koscielny (C), Monreal – Cazorla, Xhaka – Walcott, Özil, Sánchez – Pérez

Ospina, Gibbs, Giroud, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Holding, Coquelin, Elneny

Southampton: Forster – Soares, Fonte (C), Van Dijk, Bertrand – Romeu, Davis, Højbjerg, Tadić – Long, Redmond

McCarthy, Yoshida, Clasie, Rodriguez, Austin, Ward-Prowse, Targett

Saturday, 27 August 2016

PREVIEW: Southampton v Sunderland

Unavailable: Southampton – Gardoş, Pied
                       Sunderland – Mannone, O’Shea, Larsson, Kirchoff, Cattermole

Two teams. Two new managers. One point between the two of them. It isn't hugely cheerful reading ahead of this weekend's encounter between Southampton and Sunderland. It is true that both teams have had to contend with a new wave of optimism that has spread across both halves of Manchester, but no wins before an international break will inevitably lead to some uncomfortable questions. Out of Claude Puel and David Moyes, you feel that it is the former who is under increased pressure to banish that sense of apprehension.

The Frenchman would surely also have been keen to settle all his transfer dealings by now, but such is the nature of the beast that is the August window, the momentum generated in the last couple of days will often be the moment when your target is finally secured. If you're not counting the glamour signing of Stuart Taylor, Sofiane Boufal is the name that will not go away at the moment. The Moroccan is a raw talent whose game has been improved a great deal in the last year by Lille boss Frédéric Antonetti who took the reins in Nord-Pas-De-Calais at the tail end of last year. He may occasionally attempt too many flicks, tricks and pirouettes, but he could be the marquee signing that sparks Saints' season into life. Record signings haven't always worked well for Saints (and no, I'm not referring to Rory Delap), but Boufal is an exciting livewire who could propel the side forward this campaign.

In any case, the attacking midfielder can't play until next month, and for now, Puel needs his side to give a performance that proves that his team has a cutting edge. There was plenty of huff and puff at Old Trafford but Saints did not carve out a plethora of openings, and when they did have a half-chance, it fell at the feet of the two strikers. Unfortunately, as excellent an impact player Shane Long is, his finishing remains erratic. Nathan Redmond meanwhile merely rocketed the ball in the direction he was facing – the advertising hoardings.

A considered build-up against Sunderland would not be a negative tactic, but it may be the wrong one. A side that is low on confidence such as this weekend's visitors are crying out to be attacked from the off. Patience is key – especially when Jermain Defoe is down the other end of the pitch ready to convert the most meagre of opportunities – however Saints must try to pierce Sunderland's defensive midfield early doors and run directly at their defence which is not always the most stable.

This should be a time for Saints fans to be buzzing with the excitement of European football and a trip to the San Siro around the corner, however it has felt flat at the beginning of this season. Claude, it's time to reinvigorate St Mary's.

Key Battles

Bertrand v Januzaj: Ryan Bertrand should be back this for this weekend's game, but he will need to readjust rapidly if he is to take on Adnan Januzaj. After breaking through at Man United under David Moyes, he struggled to secure any playing time and fluency at Dortmund. He has taken a step down and early signs suggest that this has been a wise move. The Belgian was a rare bright spark in Sunderland's drab loss to Middlesbrough – often leaving George Friend panting back down the touchline. Bertrand will have less protection with the diamond midfield in place and will have to watch Januzaj as the winger cuts inside onto his left foot.

Tadić v McNair: Dušan Tadić has made a decent start to the season and seems to have revelled in his role as the No 10, but if Sofiane Boufal arrives then he will be under immediate pressure to retain that spot. The Serbian has threatened, and was a close second to Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in the stakes for MOM in the Watford game, but he now must penetrate the opposition's backline. Paddy McNair will most likely be the man charged with halting Saints' No 11. The Northern Irishman has impressed in his performances for his national side, but now has to prove his worth at club level.

Possible Line-ups

Southampton: Forster – Soares, Fonte (C), Van Dijk, Bertrand – Romeu, S. Davis, Højbjerg, Tadić – Long, Redmond

McCarthy, Yoshida, Clasie, Austin, Ward-Prowse, Olomola, Targett

Sunderland: Pickford – Love, Djilobodji, Koné, Van Aanholt – Rodwell, McNair – Januzaj, Gooch, Watmore – Defoe (C)

Stryjek, Khazri, Lens, Pienaar, Asoro, T. Robson, J. Robson

Thursday, 18 August 2016

PREVIEW: Manchester United v Southampton

Unavailable: Manchester United – No players unavailable
                      Southampton – Bertrand

Dušan Tadić. Charlie Austin. The men who stunned Manchester United fans into silence in January 2015 and January 2016. Both raced to the one corner of Old Trafford where pandemonium ensued as Saints fans revelled in their joy in the red half of Manchester. This had not previously been a happy hunting ground for Saints, and it was necessary to eke out every last drop of euphoria. The home fans quickly recovered to release their angst, as fire and brimstone rained down upon Louis van Gaal.

We have not had to wait a calendar year for another trip to Old Trafford, as Southampton travel up to Manchester on Friday night with Sky trying to jab their fingers into as many pies as possible. It will be two different men in the dugout this time out with José Mourinho battling it out with Claude Puel. The Portuguese's return to Old Trafford hands United the opportunity to scramble together their credibility and their qualifications to be a "big club" once again.

Ed Woodward has certainly splurged enough money from his Mayfair office for that to be the case. Four players signed from Europe's other top leagues will be expected to heave United back into the race for the title. Eric Bailly, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba certainly pack a punch on paper, but if the right balance was struck with United's young attacking talent then Mourinho could challenge Pep Guardiola for the Premier League crown.

It is not Claude Puel's first visit to Old Trafford. His Lille side went down to a 2-0 aggregate defeat to United in a tie which is largely remembered for Puel yanking players off the pitch after Ryan Giggs took a quick free kick to score. In his first couple of months as manager, the Frenchman has been regarded as a calm, collective figure, but anyone who stands toe to toe with the supposedly omnipotent Sir Alex Ferguson clearly has a bit of bite about them.

Puel is certainly bold with his unique diamond/False 9 formation. In last weekend's match with Watford, it lacked the required oomph to unsettle the Hornets in the first half. Neither James Ward-Prowse nor Steven Davis could pierce through the visitors' dogged defensive midfield, while it was only Shane Long who adequately challenged Watford's three centre-backs when he took up Tadić's role, but pushed up to mould his side into a 4-3-3. In the second half, matters improved immeasurably as the two strikers came together, allowing the full-backs to bomb into the space beyond. The introduction of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg was also crucial as he drove forward to aid the attacking onslaught in the closing moments, however Saints could not quite secure that winning goal.

How Puel lines his side up at Old Trafford will be intriguing. Will he stick with the diamond formation in an attempt to drill the system in or will he be more cautious to counter United's attacking prowess? One thing is for sure – Højbjerg must start. The Dane is a complete box-to-box midfielder and will become a crucial vertebra in Southampton's spine this campaign. United's defence remains fragile, and that driving force from midfield will be unsettling. Jérémy Pied also put in a solid performance at right-back during his debut last weekend, and could provide an interesting option for Puel on Friday night.

It will be an odd evening for José Fonte who is supposedly gagging for a move to the hosts (if you trust the Manchester Evening News). I have no qualms if the Portuguese wishes to depart for a bigger club – he has earned that opportunity. However, he must clearly stake his claim either way now – even if that means he is left to train with academy players until his departure if he opts to leave. Fonte has easily been one of Saints’ most important characters during the rise to the upper echelons of the Premier League, but he should not forget that the club has provided him with an extraordinary platform to excel at the highest level. Lingering in footballing purgatory helps no one José…

Key Battles

Rooney v Romeu: How Oriol Romeu has deserved his chance in that anchor role in the Saints midfield… After watching Victor Wanyama's inconsistent displays from the bench last season and deputising admirably, his chance has arrived to nail down a starting slot. Yet last Saturday, he was frequently undone by Etienne Capoue's forays forward into Saints' defensive third. Skill wasn't necessary – he merely burst past the Spaniard. Friday night will prove a tougher test as he faces Wayne Rooney. The England captain has been poor in the last few years as he lacks the sheer tenacity he once possessed, but given the chance he will connect play in the final third to open the door for his teammates.

Ibrahimović v Van Dijk: Zlatan Ibrahimović will make his long awaited home bow in a United shirt on Friday night, and he will be desperate to stamp his mark. It will be a hard task to stop the colossal Swede but it provides Virgil van Dijk with the chance to highlight his position as one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League. Physicality and concentration will be key for the Dutchman as Saints look to secure a third consecutive victory at Old Trafford.

Possible Line-ups

Manchester United: De Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Shaw – Pogba, Herrera – Mata, Rooney (C), Martial – Ibrahimović

Romero, Rojo, Depay, Carrick, Mkhitaryan, Fellaini, Schneiderlin

Southampton: Forster – Pied, Fonte (C), Van Dijk, Targett – Romeu, S. Davis, Højbjerg, Tadić – Long, Redmond

McCarthy, Soares, Yoshida, Clasie, Rodriguez, Austin, Ward-Prowse

Friday, 12 August 2016

PREVIEW: Southampton v Watford

Unavailable: Southampton – Bertrand
                       Watford – Dja Djédjé, Success

Premier League football has crept up on us again this weekend after a summer brimming with sport has somewhat distracted fans from the hustle and bustle of the transfer market. So what state are Southampton in ahead of this weekend's opener against Watford? Not bad at all. But nagging doubts persist in my mind over a few matters.

Firstly, Claude Puel's diamond. In his final season at Nice, the Frenchman elected the mercurial Hatem Ben Arfa as his creator-in-chief at the tip of the midfield, and he has now handed that role to Dušan Tadić. The Serbian having more of a significant duty in the side certainly isn't a negative as he has the necessary tools to slot balls through the opposition defence at will. The problem is the fact that you could stick a few double decker buses in between both strikers in this formation. Charlie Austin galloping down the right wing is definitely not something I thought I would see on a regular basis when Saints signed the former QPR man last January. 

This formation resembles more of a False 9 formation rather than a conventional diamond with two narrow forwards, and as much as it has facilitated some nice passing moves in pre-season, I do wonder whether it allows the team to drive forward and attack the opposition in the manner which has brought the club so much success in the last few years. Shane Long's goal in the Bilbao game was an example of this as he darted into the centre before chasing onto a long, direct ball, wrestling off a defender and slotting home. I dearly hope that Claude is proved right with his tactical decisions as he grapples with Premier League football, but if it doesn’t work, then he cannot afford to be stubborn in altering his team's shape.

Secondly, the club needs to add further players to the squad with a guaranteed extra six games on the horizon, but I have no doubt that the necessary business will be done – how close to the end of the window that will take place is yet to be decided. Finally, the José Fonte “possibly leaving” niggling doubt has to be extinguished. Quickly. The captain does not require a new contract but a firm clarification on his future would greatly aid the feeling around the club. If he doesn’t then the club should not force him to stay à la Morgan Schneiderlin or Victor Wanyama. The Portuguese is older and his prime years are limited. Fonte obviously wouldn’t be as disgruntled as the two former Saints midfielders if such a situation arose, but the regret of missing out on a move to a “bigger” outfit may leave a sour taste for him and the club.

Here's hoping that he leads the team out on Saturday modelling Under Armour's debut effort bearing the much maligned white panel as Saints face a Watford side in transition once again. Last season, Quique Sánchez Flores developed a style that was direct and effective as well as delivering an FA Cup semi-final before the over zealous Pozzo family decreed that the Spaniard had taken the Hornets as far as he could. Now Walter Mazzarri takes the reins with a 3-5-2 formation that saw the club promoted from the Championship under Slaviša Jokanović. Finding a settled team could be key for Mazzarri in a squad that has seen many a turnover over the last few years.

Watford may be hard to break down on Saturday, but Saints must remain vigilant and survey the threat of a side who will most likely always leave two men up top. Both sets of full-backs will push high, therefore space could open up on the wings. Can Saints expose this on the opening day?

Key Battles

Targett v Anya: Ikechi Anya has played as a winger and a full-back but he is at his best when occupying that hybrid role of wing-back. Quique Flores preferred to adopt a 4-4-2 last season, but under Walter Mazzarri, Anya can return to his wing-back slot and roam up and down the right channel with pace and guile. Facing him will be Matt Targett who has improved immeasurably in the space of a year. He is no longer bullied in the full-back position as he occasionally was when used in the early part of last season, and will be keen to highlight his worth with Ryan Bertrand out.

Redmond v Cathcart: Nathan Redmond is likely to continue in the left striker role and will be desperate to score an early goal in a Saints shirt to prove that he has the necessary finishing capacity. In pre-season, he has showed some good skill on the ball but has been trying too hard if anything – occasionally ignoring the simpler yet more effective option. The England U21 man is a player with great potential but Saints will have to unlock it to showcase the best of him. Craig Cathcart will be tough competition for him after an excellent mature showing at the Euros. Redmond will have to overcome the Northern Ireland man's physicality to have any joy.

Possible Line-ups

Southampton: Forster – Soares, Fonte (C), Van Dijk, Targett – Romeu, Højbjerg, S. Davis, Tadić – Long, Redmond

McCarthy, Yoshida, Clasie, Rodriguez, Austin, Martina, Ward-Prowse

Watford: Gomes – Cathcart, Prödl, Britos – Anya, Watson, Guedioura, Capoue, Holebas – Ighalo, Deeney (C)

Pantilimon, Nyom, Suárez, Amrabat, Behrami, Zúñiga, Sinclair

Saturday, 14 May 2016

PREVIEW: Southampton v Crystal Palace

Unavailable: Southampton – Clasie
  Crystal Palace – Cabaye, Ledley, Zaha, Chamakh, Appiah

So, it comes down to this, a shoot out for Europa League football on the final day of the season where Southampton could finish anywhere from 5th to 8th. Victory ensures 7th – but it could be oh so much more. Or maybe that is too greedy at the moment. 7th obviously represents a stab in the dark, as ironically, six days after this game, United will face Sunday’s opponents Crystal Palace at Wembley. Louis van Gaal’s men have not been the most reliable of units this season, and I’m sure that many Saints fans will feel odd supporting Wayne Rooney and his band of highly underachieving brothers.

If Saints could find a way into the Europa League football, it would be colossal for the club, as it acts as a real vehicle for progression, and the opportunity to showcase the players’ ability on a larger stage. Sure, the financial figures coming through it would be nothing to write home about compared to being part of the Premier League that will be dripping with cash, but it offers the chance to compete against some of Saints’ supposed equals abroad, as well as some pretty large fish.

HOWEVER, there is the rather important matter of actually obtaining those three points. Some seem to think that it will be a mere formality after slicing through City and subduing the supposedly sumptuous Spurs. They are incorrect – this has the potential to be a prime case of “after the Lord Mayor’s show”. Palace have the tools to rumble anyone within their squad – cup final or no cup final next week. Then, there is the small issue of Alan Pardew. How he would enjoy three victories over the club that gave him the sack after a 4-0 win at the sun-drenched Memorial Stadium in August 2010.

I am not suggesting that Pardew would have any malice for Saints, nor for Newcastle for that matter, as he will repeatedly claim before any such game like a pull-string toy. Yet, imagine Pardew tomorrow if he could secure a victory ahead of the FA Cup final when he gets home. He will probably crack open a beer and smile broadly whilst considering frustrating days under Nicola Cortese and Mike Ashley. There is also the small matter of the Palace boss and his squad catching a steam train home with fans post-match. Nobody wants to be sat opposite a discontented fan in an old style compartment after a tonking. Palace will be spirited.

It is also an opportunity for those such as Dwight Gayle to impress. The striker has rarely enjoyed a long run in the side, but he toppled Stoke last weekend, and will want to stake his claim for a starting position at Wembley. If not, then a chance to act as the hero from the bench. Also, I cannot see the Palace regulars leaping out of challenges like it’s a testimonial. Sod’s law dictates that they will then probably get injured walking their dog this week.

Saints should be equipped with the right mind-set. Unlike last season, they have come from the chasing pack, and are just behind United and West Ham who have been touted as Champions League potentials throughout the season. Ronald Koeman has been brave in recent weeks, adopting a 4-3-3 that features Jordy Clasie as one of the holding midfielders instead of using both Victor Wanyama and Oriol Romeu who focus on the defensive rough and tumble in the midfield. His reward could come on Sunday, and his side will be biting at the heels of United and West Ham.

Key Battles

Ward-Prowse v Mutch: On Friday, James Ward-Prowse signed a new long-term deal with the club, and it is in games such as these where he must step up now, and dictate play – particularly in the position which he seems to prefer – anchoring the midfield alongside the protecting figure of Victor Wanyama. In that quarter-back role, he can pick the ball up from deep, and spray passes to engineer openings. He has to imprint himself on proceedings and act as a creative figure at the back of the engine room. He will most likely face Jordon Mutch whose career has stalled slightly at Palace. He is an energetic box-to-box player, and Ward-Prowse will have to match him as well.

Fonte v Wickham: José Fonte has once again been Captain Fantastic at the back for Saints this campaign. As excellent as Virgil van Dijk has been, Fonte has marshalled him as well as Ryan Bertrand at centre-back on occasion, and has led the team from a sticky first half of the season to a resounding second half success. He will relish this physical battle with Connor Wickham who is a complete No 9. Should the Palace frontman have a season free from injury, he could creep onto Roy Hodgson’s radar. Wickham is not just a battering ram though – he leads the line with creativity and ingenuity, and Fonte will have to be prepared.

Possible Line-ups

Southampton: Forster – Martina, Fonte (C), Van Dijk, Bertrand – Wanyama, Ward-Prowse, S. Davis – Mané, Tadić – Long

Stekelenburg, Soares, Yoshida, Rodriguez, Romeu, Pellè, Austin

Crystal Palace: Hennessey – Ward, Dann, Delaney (C), Souaré – Puncheon, McArthur, Mutch, Bolasie – Gayle, Wickham

Speroni, Mariappa, Campbell, Jedinak, Adebayor, Sako, Kelly

Friday, 6 May 2016

PREVIEW: Tottenham v Southampton

Unavailable: Tottenham – Bentaleb, Alli, Dembélé
                       Southampton – No Players Currently Unavailable

In this season which you think may have a low-budget ending of “and it was all a dream” at its climax, Tottenham and Southampton would both probably describe their respective campaigns as bittersweet. Probably around 25% bitter, 75% sweet. Spurs never had the title quite in their grasp – it was always a carrot that was dangled ever so slightly too far in front of them. Their young, hungry players leapt towards it, but their approach on Monday night highlighted that it had taken its toll on Mauricio Pochettino’s men.

Distasteful didn’t really cover it as the visitors could see the trophy gleaming in Claudio Ranieri’s hands while the match drifted away from them. It must have also been incredibly frustrating that the first time Chelsea had genuinely fought this season was to ensure that their London rivals did not take the title. Yet Spurs have to look at the wider picture – not a video of Wes Morgan being wheeled around Jamie Vardy’s kitchen floor in slow motion. They have pushed and developed, and Pochettino’s tactics have proved a match for any opponent. They may need to be altered when they face crème de la crème of the Champions League, however that question should be for another day.

Saints should also be content with what they have offered. The word “if” will inevitably be banded about, but with a push for Europa League football still in motion going into the final two games – it has to be judged as a success. Saints just do not currently have the players to sustain a challenge for Champions League football, as consistency can elude them over the course of nine months. Yes, shabby cup performances should be analysed briefly, but in the summer.

Now is a time to look forward and gamble on grabbing as many points as possible in the next two games. Last Sunday’s demolition of City should have gone some way to fuelling the necessary belief for the chase. The losing Champions League semi-finalists were run ragged through a direct approach with Dušan Tadić at the core of everything threatening that Saints engineered throughout the afternoon. The Serbian attacker has not been in such fine form since Ronald Koeman’s honeymoon period at the beginning of last season. He glided from left to right, then dropped into the hole at times, and picked the visitors off to devastating effect. He propelled his team, who also showcased a gritty side to their game to deny City when they had plenty of possession at the start of either half.

That may well come in handy at White Hart Lane on Sunday, but that is not to say that Saints will not have an attacking presence in the game. Pochettino’s tactics are still based on blood and thunder high pressing, and Koeman can exploit that. Saints haven’t beat the North London side during the Dutchman’s tenure – or since their return to the Premier League for that matter – however Spurs will surely still have a hangover from Monday night. Saints have to strike while the iron is hot.

Key Battles

Mason v S. Davis: As a clear shot of Moussa Dembélé scratching away at Diego Costa’s face came to light, there was no doubt that a replacement would be required for this Sunday’s game. It is likely to be Ryan Mason. The England international is a useful squad player for Spurs, but is severely limited when compared to the Belgian. Mason covers ground well, and has the ability to put in a crunching tackle – but sometimes they are a tad too crunching. The Spurs academy graduate is liable to losing his head, and Saints must frustrate him on Sunday when they have the opportunity. Steven Davis will inevitably be ready to play a key role, nabbing the ball away from the home side before picking that sensible pass.

Walker v Tadić: As I mentioned previously, Dušan Tadić put in a stonking performance last Sunday, and that was partly due to the freedom allowed to him as he continually popped up on either side or in the centre. He will most likely be initially starting against Kyle Walker on Sunday. The right-back has matured immensely this season, but still marauds forward far too readily, and Tadić could punish him. The Serbian does not have great pace, however he is incredibly clever, and always seems to know the opportune moment to play the correct ball – particularly in the space which Walker will probably allow him this weekend.

Possible Line-ups

Tottenham: Lloris (C) – Walker, Alderweireld, Verthongen, Rose – Dier, Mason – Son, Eriksen, Lamela – Kane

Vorm, N’Jie, Trippier, Chadli, Wimmer, Carroll, Davies

Southampton: Forster – Martina, Fonte (C), Van Dijk, Bertrand – Wanyama, Clasie, S. Davis – Mané, Tadić – Long

Stekelenburg, Soares, Yoshida, Rodriguez, Romeu, Pellè, Austin

Saturday, 30 April 2016

PREVIEW: Southampton v Manchester City

Unavailable: Southampton – No Players Currently Unavailable
                       Manchester City – Touré, Silva

Of all the teams to fall foul of Ronald Koeman’s tactical tinkering in the last couple of years, Manchester City have not been one of them. When they arrived at St Mary’s last season, Southampton were challenging at the top of the table, and were about to face three self-appointed big boys within the course of eight days. They fell at the first hurdle. City are not well known for being tactically resolute, but Manuel Pellegrini’s men pushed Saints’ wing men high and quickly – the hosts simply couldn’t cope, and repeatedly lost possession. Pellegrini was cunning, and his players rammed three goals past Fraser Forster into the Chapel End goal.

Yet, City are rarely so adept at carrying out plans such as these – particularly without the guidance of leaders like Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta. Meanwhile, Joe Hart may be screaming, and screeching, and pulling out his hair which is so beautifully maintained by his Head & Shoulders, but his impact as a senior player is obviously reduced in goal. Alan Pardew noted a similar problem in his tenure at St Mary’s when Dean Hammond replaced Kelvin Davis as team captain. You rarely see one of Pellegrini’s men visibly rallying others and enforcing a plan, as opposed to giving it to Sergio Agüero and hoping for the best. To be fair, that often works. With Real Madrid to face at the Bernabéu in midweek though, the Chilean will no doubt ring the changes, possibly leaving his team somewhat dishevelled. The organisation that earned them a heartening stalemate at the Etihad could be left at the wayside, and that should play into Saints’ hands.

However, this will clearly be a tougher challenge than the one that faced them at Villa Park last weekend. That was a mere stroll through the various claret shirts who were supposed to be marking them. Four goals were notched with Saints barely getting out of second gear. Villa meanwhile, don’t even need an MOT. The car needs to be scrapped. Immediately. No, this will be one of those times where Koeman has to don his tactical cap, and figure out where to hit City, and when. Three words spring to mind. Quick. Direct. Central. It may not be pretty, but it could well be effective enough to stifle the visitors on Sunday. This game was made for Shane Long and Sadio Mané to disturb a backline that will probably be without Vincent Kompany.

It would be fair to speculate that the Dutchman will revive the 5-3-2 formation for this game with the strength of City’s attack initially, and see how the game pans out. If his attack is suffering, he has a complete squad to choose from, and change his side at any given moment with a quick alteration of shape. The Saints boss will most likely believe that only a win will be necessary to usurp and Liverpool and West Ham in the hunt for Europa League football, and the added firepower of Jay Rodriguez and Charlie Austin could force the issue from the bench.

Key Battles

Wanyama v Delph: This will be a test of Manuel Pellegrini’s squad, and one man who will be desperate for a game is Fabian Delph. Predictably, Delph has been unable to bridge the colossal gap of talent that exists between Villa and City, and although Fernando and Fernandinho do not fit into the world-class talent bracket at the Etihad, they are superior to the Leeds academy graduate. An “up and at ‘em” attitude does not make a top Premier League performer, but Delph will want to prove naysayers such as myself wrong ahead of the Euro’s. Victor Wanyama’s role will be crucial in this game – breaking up City’s attack and get Saints on their way. The Kenyan is often at his most active when the opponent is on the front foot, therefore Sunday’s game should see him perform well.

Long v Mangala: A City fan once told me that if you are in the Champions League then you will be forced to pay through the roof for any sort of marquee signing. Eliaquim Mangala is a stunning example of this – a mere £30m for a player who permanently looks uncomfortable and awkward at the back. That encounter at St Mary’s last season was a glaring example of his inabilities. In a match where his team were so incredibly at ease, the Frenchman still managed to pick up a senseless couple of bookings to earn an early wander to the away dressing room. He will most likely be given an opportunity on Sunday. Ronald Koeman’s message to Shane Long should be clear. Stick to him, and then run off his back – every single time. City will most likely play with a high line, and the Irishman could wriggle away from the centre-back from the off.

Possible Line-ups

Southampton: Forster – Soares, Van Dijk, Fonte (C), Bertrand, Targett – Wanyama, Romeu, S. Davis – Mané, Long

Stekelenburg, Yoshida, Clasie, Rodriguez, Tadić, Pellè, Austin

Manchester City: Hart – Zabaleta (C), Otamendi, Mangala, Kolarov – Fernandinho, Delph – Navas, Nasri, Sterling – Iheanacho

Caballero, Sagna, Kompany, Fernando, Bony, De Bruyne, Clichy