Pep Guardiola's worst ever season, but Man City show signs of progress
Manchester City's 3-0 win at Southampton perhaps flattered the away side a little. Right up until the latter stages, the hosts were well in the game, and there wasn't much between the teams -- even if Pep Guardiola's men had dominated possession to that point.
City stepped on the gas in the second half and slowly pulled away from their opponents. However, the match demonstrated in a nutshell how the club is beginning to progress under the Catalan manager.
Few will argue that this has been a successful season for Guardiola. Expectations were high -- perhaps too high -- to begin with, and that he hasn't been able to put up more of a title challenge in his debut campaign in England is disappointing many.
His list of unwanted records is growing too. At City, he has endured his longest winless run, as the club went six without victory between September and October. He has also been knocked out of the Champions League earlier than ever before, lost home and away to a single team for the first time in the same season and lost more matches in this one campaign than in any of his others.
It's Guardiola's worst season as a manager, but that has to come with the caveat that he isn't managing a team that falls into the same bracket as his previous clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He isn't a miracle worker; City were never going to solve all of their problems in one managerial appointment and transform from the team that won the League Cup and scraped fourth place last season into quadruple winners overnight.
Yet with the win at St. Mary's, there are clear signs that Guardiola's changes are working. City's style became more obvious and imposing as the match wore on. Fans might shudder to think of Claudio Bravo knocking the ball coolly to Gael Clichy or Nicolas Otamendi when they're under pressure, but it's something they're going to have to get used to. As Southampton pushed up to try to steal possession high up the field, the away side knocked a couple of quick forward passes through the press and twice scored by finding themselves on the counterattack.
It's a way of setting up a breakaway without letting the opposition have the ball, enticing them forward by offering them a sniff at an error or a mistake -- and punishing them by exposing their defence. The only trouble for City this season has been that their backline has been rather too generous in giving the other team chances, and their goalkeeper has been far too porous at times.
The foundations are in place for City to become one of the best teams to watch the next few seasons. The attacking side has developed over the past eight months, and though it's still proving hit-and-miss, as it can fail to break down some teams happy to concede possession and sit deep, Southampton are the latest to be stung on the counter.
There was little danger when Kevin De Bruyne challenged for the ball midway into his own half with just under 15 minutes to play. They had defensive cover and two men pressing the Belgian, but a cute flick and two decisive runs, one from him and one from Leroy Sane, beat nine of the home players.
In two more passes -- Sergio Aguero to David Silva and Silva back to De Bruyne -- City created a two-on-one on the edge of the Saints' box.
The third goal was similar. From the point Otamendi won the ball in his own half, City took just four passes to find the net, with each of Yaya Toure, Silva, Jesus Navas and De Bruyne taking only two or three touches before it was put on a plate for Aguero to head home.
Of course, City's problems at the back have undermined their season and have left some scratching their heads as to why Guardiola would replace a fantastic shot-stopper such as Joe Hart and make his team more vulnerable to facing opposition chances. Some have consistently questioned the manager's persistence with getting the ball down and playing it to feet, even under pressure.
But the victory over Southampton is another in a growing list demonstrating just what he is trying to achieve by doing it. In truth, the Saints never looked like scoring -- even if their fans might have felt the opportunity to steal the ball and create a chance was there, as City passed it under pressure.
The style isn't perfect, and it still needs a lot of work. The quality of players in the back four needs to be improved too. But overall, there are very clear signs of progression, even if 2016-17 hasn't lived up to the hopes and expectations that many had back in August.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney