The Big Match Tactical View: Southampton v Manchester City

Yaya Toure will return after his midweek suspension
Yaya Toure will return after his midweek suspension
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Sunday's opening match is second against third, with Southampton hoping to defeat one of their direct rivals at the top of the league for the first time this season. Michael Cox looks at the tactics, and Alan Thompson reveals his trading angle...   

"This is a meeting between two strong defences and a midfield zone that might be about caution rather than creativity."

Back Under 2.5 goals at 2.0811/10

Southampton v Manchester City
Sunday 13:30,
Sky Sports 1.

Match Odds: Southampton 3.39/4, Manchester City 2.3411/8, The Draw 3.613/5.

There's only one place to start when considering this fixture: Sergio Aguero. The Argentine striker is in incredible form, and showed his clinical nature in front of goal with his cool hat-trick against Bayern Munich on Tuesday evening. 

Manchester City are certainly not a one-man team, but it's tough to imagine where they would be without Aguero. With David Silva out and Yaya Toure off-form, their strategy at the moment involves getting the ball to Aguero ASAP.

This game is particularly interesting for Aguero because of his incredible pace. Southampton press intensely in midfield, which means they also play with a high defensive line, and have caught the opposition offside more than anyone else in the league. 

Clearly, this has been beneficial, as they boast the best defensive record in the Premier League. However, they conceded against Aston Villa on Monday evening when Gabby Agbonlahor raced in behind, beat Fraser Forster to the ball, and fired into an empty net. Aguero is very much capable of doing the same, and on current form, it's difficult to imagine him not finding the target.

Manuel Pellegrini has selection dilemmas in midfield. Both Toure and Fernandinho were suspended against Bayern Munich and are likely to return, which means at least one of Frank Lampard and James Milner making way, although the latter could be used on the flank in the continued absence of David Silva, probably with Jesus Navas making way.

Stevan Jovetic performed well as a sub against Bayern, and following a goal last weekend against Swansea, might hope to start alongside Aguero. Changes in defensive positions are possible, with Pablo Zabaleta likely to return at right-back, but this shouldn't change the tactical battle significantly.

Ronald Koeman's key selection decisions are also in the centre of midfield. For the game against Villa on Monday, he elected to play a second striker, Shane Long, rather than a third central midfielder, which has been Southampton's usual format this term.

It was an understandable decision against a Villa side who have been desperately poor recently, and who had significant injury problems at centre-back, but it didn't work. The midfield and attack felt disjointed, and it's difficult to imagine Koeman will make the same decision this weekend against the strength of City's midfield.

The question, then, is who will return. Steven Davis has been in excellent form this season and thoroughly deserves his place at the head of the midfield triangle. However, he's been suffering with a hamstring injury, and therefore Jack Cork could feature instead. Those two play a different type of midfield game: Davis is more combative, gets up and down the pitch more and has impressed with his late runs into the box, whereas Cork is a more sensible, reliable and methodical user of the ball. This selection could change the way Southampton play. 

Elsewhere, it's difficult to imagine too many attacking changes. Long might hope to continue, but it's more likely Sadio Mane will start on one flank with Dusan Tadic on the opposite side.

So where can the Saints look to dominate? In truth, it's slightly difficult to predict how Southampton will play tactically, considering they haven't faced many strong sides thus far. The reason they failed to finish higher in the table last season, despite many impressive performances, was because they struggled to beat sides above them in the league, and this is a real test having lost to Liverpool and Tottenham, the two 'big' teams they've faced already in 2014/15.

Koeman could adjust his defensive line and sit a little deeper against Aguero, but either way Southampton need to start strongly, pressing intensely in midfield and dominating the centre of the pitch. 

Graziano Pelle has received much attention for his good performances in front of goal, but might have to play a supporting role here. He should attempt to drag Vincent Kompany up the pitch, creating space for others to dart into - Mane might like this approach, in particular. Meanwhile, City can also be vulnerable between the lines and therefore it's vital that Cork or Davis take up clever positions.

It's also worth Southampton pushing their full-backs forward. Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne combined for the equaliser at Villa Park on Monday evening and Manchester City aren't always comfortable against aggressive, attacking full-backs. Nor, indeed, are City particularly threatening on the counter-attack down the flanks, although Navas changes this if he starts.

I predict a relatively low-scoring game here, with two good defences and a midfield zone that might be about caution rather than creativity. Therefore, I'll back Under 2.5 goals at 2.0811/10.

Recommended bet:
Back Under 2.5 goals at 2.0811/10

The Betfair Trader's View: Alan Thompson

High-flying Southampton face their toughest test of the season when they entertain the champions at St Mary’s. Saints are unbeaten at home, scoring a league high 17 goals while conceding just the one goal, against QPR.  

But while Koeman's men are undoubtedly playing well, the fixture list has been rather kind to them. So far they have only faced two sides that finished in the top half of the Premier League last season, losing both – 1-0 at Spurs and 2-1 at Liverpool. Last season against top half sides they won only three of their 18 games, beating Newcastle (4-0), Everton (2-0) at home and Liverpool (0-1) away.

Manchester City will be buoyant after their late show to beat ten-man Bayern Munich at the Etihad, with Sergio Aguero in sensational form. They have scored on every away day so far and, despite Saints' excellent defensive record, I am confident they will keep that record going.

I think City will have too much for Southampton and will move into second place in the league. However, I think they will probably have to score at least a couple of times to accomplish the win – I will be backing the visitors in the match odds market @ 2.4 and over 2.5 goals @ 2.0, this works as a saver but also allows both bets to win.

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