A throwback English defender who just loves to defend – the disarmament of Sterling and City showed Walker-Peters is perfect for Southampton


If ever a budding, young coach wanted to analyse a backs-to-the-wall defensive display, look no further to what ensued at St Mary’s on Sunday night.

Kyle Walker-Peters could barely stand upright at the sound of the final whistle. Forget Messi and co at the Nou Camp, the match he’d just been involved in was the most demanding of his career.

Moments before, Kevin De Bruyne was lining up a free-kick, poised to strike Manchester City’s 26th shot at goal, incidentally, one more effort than Leicester struck in their 9-0 victory at St Mary’s. But this time around, it was different. Saints were winning.

It was all getting a bit silly now. Waves and waves of City attack had somehow resulted in nothing and Southampton remained caught in a prolonged storm that only the squeak of Stuart Attwell whistle could halt. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men were battered, bruised, but were unwavering in their refusal to wilt. There would be on last act of defiance from those in red and white, blocking their umpteenth City shot of the game to ensure De Bruyne’s latest effort deflected well away from Alex McCarthy’s goal.

Southampton had just laid bare their guts and were rewarded glory. With no one in the ground, it was a heroic, defiant display that had resonated with every single supporter watching on from home. Of course, the spine of team will take most of the plaudits, and deservedly so, but Kyle Walker-Peters’ performance was unequivocal proof that stoic, good old-fashioned defending still has it’s rightful place in the game.

But to get a sense of how quietly extraordinary Walker-Peters’ performance was, you need to expand the parameters first.

Over the past decade, there has been a clear culture shift in how football views the role of a full-back. The remit requires a specialist that has the physical and technical aptitude to carry much of their side’s burden. It is an ever-evolving, ever-growing role, one of which demands a surgical-like precision to hold your own among Europe’s elite leagues.

Embed from Getty Images

They need to be able to grasp the intrinsic tactical nuances of the manager, understanding the significant duties the position entails. Under Ralph Hasenhuttl, Southampton’s full-backs are tasked with an even greater responsibility than what you would come to expect.

Hasenhuttl’s high-octane, blow-for-blow pressing system has meant his full-backs are charged with incessantly transitioning from defence to attack in a matter of seconds. With the ball, they provide the width in a narrow 4-2-2-2 set-up, essentially resembling an NFL wide receiver. Without it, they are required to be adept at defending one against one, due to the winger in-front tucking in to support the double central midfield pivot.

Of course, coached by Hasenhuttl, they are relentlessly barked to be on the front foot and get touch tight to their direct competitor. They have to contend with one of the most extreme forms of press, one where the Saints boss places greater emphasis on his full-backs high marking a man, than space. And if the opposition are able to neglect the first, second and perhaps third phases of the press, then the full-backs routinely have to prove they’re comfortable at defending balls in-behind.

This means Hasenhuttl places importance on his defensive outsiders having the necessary acumen to make recovery tackles and recovery runs, both of which can cause excessive fatigue during a 90 minute game. All in all, it’s not easy being a full-back at Hasenhuttl’s Southampton. Especially for a player who joined midway through the season, and has to learn on the job.

Step forward Kyle Walker-Peters.

19 seconds in and the 23-year-old was on the ground, having just committed his first perfectly timed tackle on his direct nemesis for the evening, Raheem Sterling. The winger’s first touch had run away from him, and Walker-Peters showed no room for sympathy, putting in an aggressive slide that made Sterling quickly withdraw his right foot away from the collision. The first seed of doubt in Sterling’s mind had been created. This prompted an “excellent Kyle” shout from his defensive neighbour Jack Stephens, who would soon grow to realise that the early action would set the tone for the day.

A few minutes later, it was 3-0 in the KWP/Sterling showdown. Two successive intelligent uses of his body nudged Sterling off the ball, both provoking a large, collective round of applause from the home bench.

Embed from Getty Images

An act of cynicism soon followed, as Sterling found himself on his haunches after a little shove and some afters from the full-back. Okay, it was a free-kick to City, but Hasenhuttl secretly loved it. He had seen his own player carry out one of his own little managerial trademarks as Walker-Peters refused to let Sterling turn on the halfway line. 

For arguments sake, lets say the dispatching of Sterling to his haunches was another mini-success for the right-back. After nicking the ball away from Sterling in the box a few sequences of City possession later, Walker-Peters had taken a 5-0 lead in direct duels with the wide-man.

What makes Walker-Peters’ first-half domination of Sterling all the more impressive is that he isn’t this rangy, physical athlete that has sometimes been Sterling’s blind spot. He has a diminutive 5ft 7inch frame, not exactly conducive to bullying the technically greater Sterling. Instead, Walker-Peters relied on timing, execution and tackling to perfection to overwhelm and completely exhaust the ideas of City’s left hand flank.

In fact, Sterling’s best moment of the half came in the brief 30 second cameo on the right wing, where a flashed delivery had to be cleared away by Danny Ings. It wasn’t any tactical switch from Pep Guardiola, nor an admittance of resignation from Sterling. It simply came through Riyad Mahrez coming across to offer for a short corner.

The second-half followed suit and in the 58th minute, Pep Guardiola gesticulated to Sterling to come off. As the England International trudged off the pitch, it was certainly the case of “grab your coat Raheem, you’re hooked” – another mini-victory for KWP. In a game of goal-saving blocks, the Londoner perhaps made the most significant of them all against Aymeric Laporte.

It had come in the midst of a five minute City stampede that was so dominant, centre-back Laporte found himself momentarily playing as a second striker in the Saints box. Swivelling, Laporte’s left-footed strike was set to nestle into the bottom corner, only for Walker-Peters – whose tight covering next to Stephens allowed him to do so – improvising to make the block.

But mirrored in their manager’s characteristics, City remained relentless. While Sterling took his socially distanced seat and began to stare into the distance, shaking his head, Walker-Peters now had to deal with just the small matter of De Bruyne and Phil Foden.

As stated at the top of the piece, the life of a fullback is an ever-changing one. The remit had just altered again. Walker-Peters would have to adjust again. Instead of a direct competitor, he would now have to tussle with half a dozen City ballerinas, all floating and interchanging with the distinct sartorial elegance you’d come to expect from a Pep Guardiola side.

Particularly for a young novice within this Southampton side, his head should have been spinning. Yet, entrenched in a defence that has the tendency to self-implode, the calm manner of how Walker-peters negotiated the final half an hour was spell-binding. He tucked in, held position and buckled himself in for the toiling, bumpy ride that was bound to follow. Even in his sole dalliance on the ball, where he got nicked in possession, the next phase he had recovered well to sweep up Jan Bednarek’s initial interception.

That would prove to be the last action of his evening. Against the mercurial City attackers, the 23-year-old had remained resolute, whose unerring desire to defensive combat suggested a man that places far higher value on making tackles than judging success through his own attacking output.

Admittedly, Walker-Peters does have scope for improvement in the final third. After all, Jose Mourinho decided the drawbacks his creative metrics invite do not warrant him vying with Serge Aurier for a starting berth in his side.

However, the 43rd minute on Sunday showed he isn’t a complete offensive amateur.  After a rare Southampton attack, the right back received the ball 15-yards-in from the touchline, before curling a deep cross in the path of Ings, just his fifth cross in his three games at the club. Although the forward failed to get the correct contact required on the ball, it was one of Southampton’s better chances of the game. If Ings had scored his 19th goal of the season, then more would have been said about the pinpoint pass that much resembled Trent Alexander-Arnold’s flagship deliveries. 

Embed from Getty Images

Given the visible struggles of Yan Valery and the expiration of Cedric Soares’ contract last week, adding Walker-Peters would provide Hasenhuttl with a reliable, young English full-back that fits the hallmarks of the direction Southampton are heading.

And it’s with reasonable certainty that any shortcomings offensively could be significantly improved under the stewardship of the Austrian, whose attention to detail when developing young, “open-minded” players has been evident throughout his managerial career.

A 90 minute exhibition of artistry defending, Kyle Walker-Peters’ performance against Manchester City was introvertedly majestic. If it hadn’t convinced Southampton to put a pen in his hand and a contract on the table, nothing will.

Follow us on Twitter @ProstInt


About Author

Football, Boxing and Cricket correspondent from Hampshire, covering southern sport. Editor and Head of Boxing at Prost International. Accreditated EFL & EPL journalist.

Comments are closed.