Pep Guardiola drew the reaction he demanded from Manchester City fans against Southampton but not from his players who appeared as tired as their manager suggested they might be following Wednesday’s win over RB Leipzig.
That was the moment Guardiola asked for more support this afternoon. It began a comical bout of he-said, he-said with Kevin Parker, the secretary of the official supporters’ club, who politely informed Guardiola to stick to coaching.
An Etihad Stadium that appeared close to full sang songs about Guardiola but saw footballers of the class of Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gündogan, Fernandinho, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling labour. Actual shots were collector’s items from those in sky blue and Southampton were eager to counter-thrust via bursts from Nathan Redmond and Adam Armstrong.
Disaster appeared to strike the hosts on the hour when Walker ceded possession and had to scurry back, only to bring Armstrong down. Jonathan Moss gave a penalty and showed Walker a red card. VAR ordered him to the monitor, and the referee decided the right-back crashed into Armstrong as the latter wrapped a leg around the ball, so overturned his decisions. If Moss adjudged this a clear and obvious error, the official may wish to consult a dictionary to reacquaint himself with the terms’ definitions.
“We had the feeling it was not a clear, wrong decision,” said the Southampton manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl. “When he has the feeling it is a clear wrong decision he has to overturn it – disappointing for us.”
Guardiola had seen enough. Fernandinho was substituted for Kevin De Bruyne to try and jump-start his side. Moments later, Riyad Mahrez was introduced for the clumsy Jesus.
This was a fixture City won 5-0 last term but how they would have loved a one-goal victory now. Initially they had Southampton backpedalling along both channels. Jack Grealish, City’s best hope, was turning in the sunshine along the left and floating the ball over to the right to draw applause.
Grealish shone in Wednesday’s win and was at it again. He showed a burst of electric pace to drive in behind and earn City’s first corner. Then came a Guardiola remonstration which, as is his style, directly followed a flowing move. Walker controlled neatly, fed Fernandinho who zipped the ball to Sterling. Saturday’s nominated No 9 swivelled and tapped to Gündogan who was barely beaten to it by Alex McCarthy.
Cue the manager delivering a lecture to Walker for some misdemeanour, despite the right-back’s key role in the sequence. Perhaps it worked because it was Walker whose cross invited Gündogan, once again, to score only for the midfielder to fail with a header.
City had moved from third to fourth gear, Grealish and Bernardo Silva each fashioning chips aimed at Sterling but the Southampton defence held firm. The increased tempo on the pitch ratcheted the volume to a level which met the manager’s demand for requisite backing.
His team were in the swarm-attack mode that has the opponent reeling as players and the ball come at them from all angles. However Jesus’s shot just past the half-hour mark was City’s first real attempt and Southampton managed a foray of their own after Fernandinho ceded the ball.
If City’s collective rhythm was slightly off, at least Grealish was in sync. The England midfielder’s powerhouse surges and lissome fluidity made him favourite to break Southampton down.
As the half ended both Fernandinho and João Cancelo had efforts blocked: a fitting snapshot of the opening 45 minutes – City unable to stop Southampton stymieing them.
Whatever Guardiola said at the interval did not stop Redmond enjoying himself in City’s area. His dancing feet moved the home fans to howl invectives at a rearguard which managed, eventually, to scramble the ball clear.
For a Guardiola team there was a surprising lack of imagination, pinpoint passing and maneuvering of the opponent. Any of the latter only occurred in a 15-minute passage before the break.
When Guardiola threw Phil Foden on for Silva there was a touch of desperation in the act. City were staring at two dropped points to go with the loss at Tottenham last month.
There were jeers when Cancelo hit an effort that ended rugby-conversion high. “When you hear the crowd boo you must be doing something right,” Hasenhüttl said.
By the close, the goalless draw – only the second time in 41 home outings City have failed to score – was fair. On this evidence, Guardiola has work to do.