Preview: Southampton

A busy month of February begins with a trip to Premier League Southampton in this FA Cup Fourth Round tie. That the Sky Blues can look forward to this tie as an opportunity to go toe-to-toe with a top-flight side, rather than as complete underdogs, shows the progress the club has made in recent years. Just how much importance will be placed on this game remains to be seen.

Coventry City are in a curious position approaching this tie. Neither too far away from the play-offs to believe that this the last shot of glory for this season, nor close enough to want to focus solely on the league, Mark Robins faces a tough choice in just how seriously he takes this game. Whatever decision the manager makes in his approach to this game, it will be what happens in the league fixtures that follow that will dictate whether it was a wise choice or not.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-2-1): Moore; Hyam, McFadzean, Clarke-Salter; Eccles, Sheaf, Allen, Maatsen; O'Hare, Shipley; Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

For all the debate as to how seriously Mark Robins should look to take this game, the manager has tended to take cup competitions lightly, with a league fixture to come on Tuesday night, it would be especially surprising if a first-choice team was named here.

The biggest clue as to the manager’s view of this game will be who is named in goal. Second-choice, Ben Wilson, is the favourite to start given that this is a cup game, meaning that if Simon Moore gets the nod here, Mark Robins will be taking this game more seriously than expected.

In defence, injuries and a lack of squad depth will dictate close to a first-choice selection. The main area of intrigue remains at wing-back. On the right, Todd Kane looks to be back in training after picking up an injury, but may be held in reserve here ahead of the Blackpool game on Tuesday night. On the left, both Jake Bidwell and Ian Maatsen could do with the run-out – Bidwell to further integrate into the team and Maatsen to build-up match fitness – with Jordan Shipley also an option, there is less of a need to worry about having to manage minutes around a tight upcoming schedule.

Further forward, there is also limited scope for change. Gustavo Hamer was surprisingly kept on the bench for last week’s trip to Middlesbrough and may also be held back here in favour of Jamie Allen’s industry in a game where the team may have less of the ball than they’re accustomed to.

Up front, this might be a good opportunity to help Martyn Waghorn get back up to fitness – either as the lone striker or as Viktor Gyokeres’ strike partner – although, Waghorn might be another who is unsuited to this type of game, with the energy of Callum O’Hare and Jordan Shipley more useful in helping the team unsettle Southampton.

Last Time We Met

Coventry City and Southampton were two clubs going in very different directions when the teams met at the end of the 2011/12 season. With Southampton on the verge of sealing a promotion to the Premier League, and Coventry City taking the first step into the abyss that saw them eventually relegated to League Two and spend two spells out of their home city, there was only one way the game was going to go.

Two early goals from Billy Sharp and Jose Fonte meant that there was little jeopardy to the contest. The Saints embellished the scoreline by a further two in the second-half, as Andy Thorn’s Sky Blues rolled over and meekly accepted their punishment – epitomised by the introductions of three academy players from the bench in Shaun Jeffers, Will Roberts and Joe Henderson who never played for the club again.

Southampton fans have nice things to say about Coventry City fans because of that day. It’s easy to be nice about a team that so willingly accepted defeat.

The Opposition

The Manager – Ralph Hasenhuttl

The Austrian, who had excelled at RB Leipzig, was an ambitious appointment for a Southampton side that had stagnated in the top-flight (even appointing Mark Hughes at one point) after reaching a high point of four top-half finishes in a row and two European seasons in a row. Devoted to an intense, high-pressing, style of football, Hasenhuttl has occassionally made Southampton look like the kind of youthful, energetic and exuberant side they once were, but a lack of investment has consistently made it one step forward and one back in his time at the club thus far.

That may well change after a recent takeover of the club by Serbian businessman, Dragan Solak, which seems to have engendered a good feeling around the place in recent weeks, with the Saints easing away from danger and recently taking a deserved point off champions, Manchester City. With a midweek game against Tottenham Hotspur on the horizon, Ralph Hasenhuttl may not play his strongest hand here, but that sense of momentum and enthusiasm could count for a lot (on top of Southampton’s superior quality).

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-2-2): Caballero; Valery, Stephens, Lyanco, Small; Diallo, Ward-Prowse; Elyounoussi, Redmond; Long, Adam Armstrong.
Possible Line-Up

While Southampton are likely to make a fair few changes to their usual starting line-up, the quality in the squad is spread pretty evenly beyond the starting XI to mean that they won’t be considerably weaker than they would be with a first-choice team.

With current star striker, Armando Broja, looking set for a rest here, this game could well be a big opportunity for former Coventry City starlet, Adam Armstrong to kick-start his Southampton career. After starring last season at Championship level with Blackburn Rovers, Armstrong earned his big move to the top-flight, however, he has struggled to make the step-up thus far, perhaps a little too profligate in front of goal, despite his excellent pace and movement. Against a relatively slow Coventry City back-line, this could be his chance to make hay.

James Ward-Prowse looks set to be the key player who won’t be given the game off here, due to a shortage of strength in depth for the Saints in central midfield. The England international’s quality from set-pieces (possibly, one of the best in the world) is well-known, but his tenaciousness and energy could make it especially difficult for the Sky Blues to get things going in the middles of the park.

Elsewhere, Nathan Redmond is another regular starter likely to be involved. The winger/forward’s skill and drive on the ball will be hard for the Coventry City defence to contain. In addition, the pacey, Mohamed Elyounoussi, is another who could test just how much defensive quality the Sky Blues have.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

While Southampton, as a bottom-half Premier League team, may well be seen as a reasonable opportunity for an upset for a top-half Championship team, their style may make them uniquely suited to putting away the Sky Blues relatively comfortably. With Coventry City tending to want to play out from the back and Southampton a side built around a high-intensity press, there is the recipe for this to be a game to be over rather quickly.

For Coventry City, it is imperative that any attempts to play out from the back are done so with a strong degree of accuracy and concentration. Simon Moore in goal will have an important role to play in picking out that first pass from the back to help find Sky Blues players with a little bit of space to get going. In addition, this game could well demonstrate just how far Ben Sheaf has developed as a footballer if he can give the team the quality to move the ball further up the pitch, rather than play the sloppy, blind passes in front of the defence that often got the team into danger last year.

Beyond how Southampton look to force the issue in the press, another key danger area in this game may well be how they look to exploit the lack of pace in Coventry City’s defence. As important a players as Kyle McFadzean has been this season, he is likely to be targeted here with balls played in behind him. To limit those situations, Coventry City’s own pressing game is going to have to be especially impressive here.

As for how the Sky Blues can look to win this game, the kind of quick combination counter-attacking that was seen against Middlesbrough last week could prove to be a useful strategy. With Viktor Gyokeres, Callum O’Hare and Jordan Shipley showing a good understanding in order to execute one and two-touch passing combinations, they could unsettle the Southampton defence if the team around them can play them into the right areas of the pitch.

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