N.B - The whole game is available in the YouTube video at the bottom of this report.
There was new faces involved, expected and necessary given the loans of Angelino, Ntcham and Byrne. Ash Smith-Brown took the vacated left-back spot, lining up alongside George Evans who partnered Cameron Humphreys in the centre of defence. Pablo Maffeo started at right back and Angus Gunn carried on where he left off last season as the EDS' first choice keeper. In midfield George Glendon was joined by two u18s graduates in Bersant Celina and Manu Garcia. Alongside Glendon, they completed the usual midfield three, slotting seamlessly into the roles Ntcham and Byrne occupied last year. Ahead of them Jose Pozo started through the middle, flanked either side by Brandon Barker, fresh from signing a new five year contract, and Aaron Nemane. Of the subs, Kean Bryan completed his step up to the EDS team where he was joined by new signing David Faupala, an 18 year old French youth international from Lens. The forward was joined on bench by his compatriot, Thierry Ambrose, with Ian Lawlor and James Horsfield completing the match day squad.
We started with something approaching a 4-3-3. Glendon was designated the holding role, with Garcia and Celina more advanced, often drifting out wide to support Barker and Nemane who were tasked with widening the pitch. As with last season, both fullbacks frequently stepped into central midfield, with the Humphreys and Evans splitting wide to receive the ball from Gunn, creating an almost box-esque shape in defence. A curious tactic - one perhaps designed to overload the midfield, and maybe at the same time an attempt to encourage the fullbacks to receive the ball in more technically challenging areas. Either way, it's interesting, and when it works its fascinating. Glendon found himself incredibly deep, often almost as a third centre-back, acting as the team's pivot - usually the first to receive the ball from Gunn as we persisted with building from the back. Tactically, it's a demanding approach and not everything came off for City. There's a complexity to Vieira's methods that requires sharpness, and that's rarely found at this early stage of the season. Southampton frequently caught City in possession, wise to our game after being on the wrong end of a 4-0 defeat a few months back, and they pressed high and nearly capitalised on some early season rustiness on more than one occasion.
Barker proved City's main threat. He was notably more direct than he was with the first team out on tour. He looked sharp, fit and full of running. On another day, with a little more quality around him and a tad more luck, he could have had an assist or two, maybe a goal as well. He frequently had the beating of Southampton's right-back, out-muscling and out-pacing him numerous times with relative ease. It comes naturally to him at this level and he needs a loan this year, witthout doubt. It'll surely come. Nemane on the other side found it hard to get involved. Most of our attacks were built down the left hand side as we filtered the ball through Barker, yet he worked hard and ran at their defence whenever he could. Ultimately, however, it was a relatively frustrating day for the usually effective winger, and he was replaced after an hour. Pozo, too, didn't fair well. H looked more than a little isolated up top, lasting only the first half as he toiled and ran to little effect. There was the odd nice moment, a neat turn on the edge of the area that lead to a scuffed shot on goal showcased his clear technical ability, but the young Spaniard, for all his talents, isn't a number nine. It was telling that Ambrose looked a lot more comfortable when handed that role that at the half way point.
Glendon was good - confident on the ball and quick to get back when Southampton applied pressure, he made a few telling interceptions when City found themselves on the back foot. His seniority told, and it was a solid start to the campaign for the Manchester born midfielder. Alongside Barker, another who will surely look for first team football this season. Garcia, sadly, disappointed a little. He was excellent in pre-season with the first team, coolly knocking the ball around, looking totally at ease alongside Silva and co. But it's at this level where he really has to assert himself as an individual - he disappeared far too often, and though he did turn away from his marker nicely every now and then, when given the opportunity to make a difference in the final third he was wasteful in possession. He has fantastic ability, clearly, and it's worth remembering he's only very, very young still, but this year he needs to prove that he's above the level of u21 football. He's capable. Celina was similar, though more effective - often on the periphery in the first half, like Garcia, he didn't quite get on the ball as much as she should have. Admittedly, he improved as the game developed, scoring a lovely free-kick, expertly clipping the ball over the wall to level the scores at 1-1 after we'd conceded just before the break. He was better, too, in the final twenty five minutes as he went looking for the ball, probing incisively as City looked to snatch a late leveller after City had fallen 2-1 behind.
Defensively we were generally pretty solid. Most of our problems were borne from some wayward attempts at building from the back. Understandable, given the fledgling nature of the campaign, but something Vieira would expect them all to improve on. Humphreys being a good example - at times he looked immeasurably composed, gliding out of defence elegantly, for all the world a natural footballer. Yet there was moments where he was guilty of conceding possession far too cheaply. Surely just rustiness, as the talents there, and defensively he did read the game well, but he'll expect a little more from himself. In truth it wasn't a game blessed with excellent forward play, and the centre-backs weren't unduly tested. Evans had a respectable game alongside Humphreys, composed on the ball, mopping up the the vast majority that came his way, though both were perhaps a little too slack as Southampton scored their second. England u19 international Ash Smith-Brown was good at left-back. Genuinely, and impressively, two-footed, he was relaxed, composed and measured on the ball. He found Barker often, and though he maybe doesn't quite have the same panache as Angelino, he's a reassuring presence and arguably better defensively. On the other side Maffeo had a steady game, handling anything that came his way defensively with his typical composure - one mistake aside on the half way line that unfortunately lead to a goal. It's on the front foot that he'll look to improve this year. He spent most of last season playing centre-back for the EDS, but now in his preferred right-back role he'll have the opportunity to really nurture his attacking instincts.
Gunn dealt well with what little he had to do. It was a relatively quiet game for him, despite conceding two. He didn't really have a chance with either goal. Of the subs, Ambrose impressed. He was bright, energetic and acquitted himself well - encouraging given his lengthy spell on the sidelines at the end of last season. He scored the equaliser deep into stoppage time, nodding in well at the back post from a cross that seemed to spend forever hanging in the air. It was an impressive cameo, and he looked equally at ease over on the right as he did through the middle. It was a little hard to judge the debutant, Faupala. He barely got a touch in the twenty five minutes he was afforded, and when he did he kept it simple, bringing others into play. Likewise, Kean bryan came on at centre-back with ten minutes left and was mainly a spectator as City pushed forward for an equaliser. Overall it was a competent season's opener. There's more to come, clearly, from all involved and its worth mentioning that Southampton are a very strong team at this level. Their line up contained many players who've already had plenty of experience around the first team, and Jordy Clasie, their new signing is a full Dutch international - he started the game in central midfield. All things considered, it wasn't a bad opener on paper. Vieira will expect more, naturally, and he will sure get it. Friday's game against Spurs will prove another tough challenge, one that will certainly tell us a little more about what we can expect over the next few months.