Whether it is delusion or defiance, Pep Guardiola is not showing any outward signs of panic ahead of Manchester City’s seemingly must-win matchup Sunday at Saint Mary’s versus Southampton ahead of their monumental clash versus table-toppers Liverpool.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The reigning title-holders have lost back-to-back league matches for just the second time since Guardiola’s arrival in 2016. Manchester City (14-2-3) exceeded their loss total for all of last term’s record-breaking 100 point season with their 2-1 Boxing Day defeat at Leicester City. The setback also dropped them into third place and seven points adrift of frontrunners Liverpool – whom they face Thursday at the Etihad in what could be a make-or-break contest in their bid to repeat as Premier League champions.
“The less important issue is Liverpool,” Guardiola insisted to ESPN. “We have to think about Southampton, recover mentally and recover what we are like a team. I don’t forget who we are.
“How good a team we are. How exceptional these lads I have in the locker room. But the reality is we lost three in four games and the last two. If you want to be real contenders you have to win again, if you don’t, it will not be possible.”
Guardiola also raised eyebrows with his proclamation City will not be buyers in the January transfer window. If that were to be the case, City would be passing up a chance to sign 21-year-old Ajax midfielder Luuk de Jong, a potential successor to Fernandinho and considered one of the top prospects in Europe.
For the wealth of options in attack Guardiola possesses, it has come to be that Fernandinho is the linchpin to City’s title hopes. The 33-year-old central midfielder serves as the link from defence who allows City’s attacking players to flow forward, operating as a one-man shield in front of the back four.
His availability for this match is again uncertain due to the thigh injury that has sidelined him the previous two contests, but his absence has magnified City’s shortcomings at the position as first centre back John Stones and more recently Ilkay Gundogan failed to serve as adequate replacements.
With Liverpool looming, it seems more likely Guardiola will hold out the Brasil international and again turn to Gundogan and rely on his creative midfielders David Silva – who just returned from injury – and Kevin De Bruyne – himself also not far removed from a knee injury – to help overwhelm and outscore relegation-threatened Southampton.
“‘What we have to do is try and change the dynamic to winning games. We are able to do that but I have to reflect myself, think about what the team needs and try to help them,” Guardiola told The Daily Mail. “‘That is what will concern me for the next few days. Good results are miracles for the mind and I have to help the players come back, change something and try to win again.”
Guardiola will be enforced to one change at left back since Fabian Delph will begin serving a three-match ban for his straight red card issued late in the loss to the Foxes. Oleksandr Zinchenko is expected to slot in as first-choice left back Benjamin Mendy continues to recover from a knee injury.
Southampton have seen some of those good results following the managerial change to Ralph Hasenhuttl as they have split his first four matches in charge after the sacking of Mark Hughes. Like Manchester City to a degree, the Saints were done in by a quality strike last time out as Felipe Anderson’s brace consigned them to a 2-1 defeat to West Ham on Thursday.
At some point, Hasenhuttl wants to convert Southampton into a high-pressing side that utilizes a 4-2-2-2 formation similar to what Watford employ under Javi Gracia, but the compressed holiday fixture list means the Saints will likely stick with their three-man back until at least the middle of January when they can get significant uninterrupted practice time.
In the interim, though, Hasenhuttl is concerned that an angry City side are coming to St Mary’s having pumped six past Southampton in the reverse fixture in November.
“They can be (more dangerous). It’s not normal for Manchester City to lose two times in a row,” Hasenhuttl said at his Friday news conference. “They also have a few injury problems but there is so much quality in this squad.
“Maybe they lost a bit of self confidence after being in the lead and losing two times. We expect the most difficult challenge that is possible. If we want anything out of the game then we need the perfect performance.”
Hasenhuttl will regain the services of central midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who sat out the loss to West Ham due to yellow card accumulation.
“Pierre is a very intelligent player, and he is very important for me. He reads the game very well and we need that,” Hasenhuttl noted.
The manager is also hoping Nathan Redmond can continue his resurgence, having scored in back-to-back contests after giving Southampton a short-lived lead Thursday and factoring in three of the club’s seven goals since Hasenhuttl took over. Teenager and winger Michael Obafemi is a question mark after picking up a knock in training, which would likely make Shane Long the first attacking option off the bench for a second straight match.
Raheem Sterling had two goals and two assists to power City’s rout in the reverse fixture, their fourth win on the bounce over Southampton. The Citizens are 8-1-1 in the last 10 league meetings between the teams, racking up 27 goals with only nine in reply by the Saints.
Per Bet365, City are 3/10 favourites to turn things around with a victory, while Southampton are 10/1 underdogs to send Guardiola to his first three-game losing streak in league play since taking charge of the Citizens. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/1.
Given the six City smashed past Southampton in November, it is no surprise there are 8/15 odds on the final goal total being over 2.5. There are 6/4 odds on the final score having two or fewer goals. Oddsmakers also feel a clean sheet is more likely than both teams scoring in both fixtures, with a “No” for both teams scoring at 4/5 and edging out “Yes” at 19/20.
All told, there are eight City players deemed more likely to score the first goal of the match than the Southampton top option of Danny Ings at 9/1. Sergio Aguero leads the way at 5/2, followed by Gabriel Jesus (10/3), and Sterling (9/2). After being held out of the starting XI against his former team, Riyad Mahrez is an 11/2 pick to make it 0-1, followed by Leroy Sane (6/1) and the trio of Brahim Diaz, Silva and De Bruyne — all at 8/1.
In terms of goals over the course of 90 minutes, both Aguero and Jesus are even money picks at 4/7 and 4/5, respectively. Sterling is just off that standard at 11/10, with Mahrez (7/5) and Sane (8/5) giving chase. Diaz, Silva and De Bruyne are all 11/5 picks, with Ings again the top Saints option at 5/2 along with City’s Bernard Silva.
Redmond is a 9/2 pick to score for a third straight match and a 16/1 longshot to open the scoring for a third straight Southampton contest.
One of the details of City missing Fernandinho worth being scrutinised is how the Citizens have switched off immediately after taking the lead in their last two contests. It took six minutes for Crystal Palace to equalise last weekend, five for Leicester City to draw level with arguably their first scoring chance of the match.
Another point obscured with Manchester City’s staggering depth is that Guardiola’s preferred midfield trio — David Silva on the left, Fernandinho central and De Bruyne on the right — have yet to play one minute together in league play. It’s hard to feel any pity for City given their vast fortunes — more so if the allegations of skirting Financial Fair play are ever proven accurate — but it does also speak to the quality of a side that is still on pace for nearly 90 points.
Guardiola can pick his attackers with an eye on saving those who he wants to start for Liveerpool, with the expectations Jesus and Mahrez are in the starting XI up front flanked by Sane in a bid to jump-start the Germany international ahead of Thursday’s crunch encounter.
There are some things a new manager bounce cannot overcome, and a gulf in talent is one of them. Hasenhuttl has done well with what he has, quickly made some needed tweaks, and has Southampton playing better. The talk of being defence-first is not surprising from the new boss given how City razed the Saints to the ground last month, but one hopes it does not become the same sort of hang on for dear life mentality that was apparent under Hughes and ultimately contributed to his demise.
This is the match where City right themselves, but watch how they perform after scoring a goal — something that should happen multiple times. A good week of practice will have resulted in Guardiola’s side not sitting back and eager to recover the ball repeatedly against what should be an overmatched Southampton club.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Southampton 0, Manchester City 4.