Saints save face after 9-0 shellacking
After Friday’s 9-0 defeat against Leicester City, the biggest home top-flight defeat in English football history, Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl was merely hoping to avoid thrashing. He feared it could come and after a first half which saw Manchester City go 2-0 up, dominate 80% of possession and prevent their visitors from a single attempt on goal. At that point, anything seemed possible.
“Always when you come here and you start, you never know what happens,” he admitted after the final whistle. But to come back and ‘draw the second half’ 1-1 will offer him, his Southampton players and their travelling support hope. “I think in the end it was important to show a reaction and that was the main goal for this game today,” Hasenhuttl added. How did he feel about the result? “Better than Friday.”
The only problem is that they must do it all over again. Southampton return to the Etihad in the Premier League on Saturday. They will play against a near full-strength City side who have already put eight goals past one set of relegation strugglers this season. There could be still more pain on the horizon.
Doyle shows City’s depth
The early rounds of the League Cup are often ones for debutants but there was only one player making his first senior appearance on either side: City’s Tommy Doyle. The 18-year-old has captained England at several levels and was trusted by Guardiola to play in the holding role.
The Etihad is always going to welcome a local talent, particularly one of legendary stock, but there were cheers after 15 minutes when he span away from two Southampton players in order to keep possession, inviting a kick on the heels from Oriol Romeu. It was just a snapshot of an impressive first outing. “Tommy played so good for a first game in a position that is not natural for him,” his manager said. “I saw him playing there for a few days when normally he plays in front but he played really good.”
Rodri’s injury means Guardiola’s options are limited in the holding role. Ilkay Gundogan needed to be rested and Fernandinho is needed further back. This meant Doyle started and - though one solid debut does not make a senior career - his display suggested that City have greater strength in reserve than we think.
Otamendi rides his luck again
This was Nicolas Otamendi’s first start since a dreadful display in defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers, when his willingness to go to ground cost City’s title defence dearly. In a show of faith, Guardiola recalled the Argentinian on Tuesday night and elected to leave youngster Taylor Harwood-Bellis with the Under-23s.
Otamendi repaid his manager with the opening goal after 20 minutes but a moment that followed shortly after may prove more significant. One-on-one with a counter-attacking Shane Long, the City centre-half successfully got down low, slid in, recovered possession and cleared the danger.
Has he learned his lesson? Perhaps not. Will better players than Long exploit this tendency to dive in? More than likely, yes. But Otamendi looks just as brazenly confident in his ball-winning abilities as he did against Wolves and Southampton struggled to find a way past him.
Jesus and Aguero working in harmony
Only a few days after suggesting that Gabriel Jesus could play wide to accommodate Sergio Aguero, Guardiola deployed that very set-up. With Raheem Sterling rested, City’s pair of natural-born strikers started together for the first time since September last year.
Aguero stole the limelight by bagging a brace but Jesus showed promise operating from the left, cutting inside of his natural right. It is not an entirely unfamiliar position for him, though his spells on the flanks for Brazil have generally come on the opposite flank.
Jesus’ biggest problem is Sterling. He - rather than Aguero - is the key presence in City’s attack these days and his irresistible goal-scoring form from wide areas has dissuaded Guardiola from attempting to play two strikers. Jesus still, it seems, has work to do to force his way into this side.
Is the League Cup working?
For a club as well-established in English football’s history as Southampton, their honours roll is underwhelming. The famous FA Cup win in 1976 is only joined by a couple of Third Division titles, the Football League Trophy and little else. With elimination here, hope of adding to that list for the first time in nine years ended.
City, meanwhile, enter the quarter-finals of a competition they have won four times in the past six seasons. They are unbeaten in the League Cup for just over three years. Guardiola attaches more importance to winning this trophy than other managers of the so-called ‘top six’ clubs and deserves credit for doing so.
But if City do triumph again at Wembley on 1 March, the League Cup will have been won by a club outside that top-six just twice in the past 16 seasons. What is its purpose if it is won by an established elite playing under-strength sides, managed by coaches complaining of fixture congestion? Is it time for a re-think: one which would give clubs like Southampton a better chance of winning silverware?