A clip from the tunnel interview following Manchester City’s win streak–snapping 1–1 draw with Southampton blew up over the weekend, as it captured some of the hallmarks of Pep Guardiola’s classic weirdo-genius energy: the maniacal obsession with process over results, the subtly aggressive intensity in his eyes when he stares down the interviewer after the gentleman expressed surprise at Pep calling the game “one of [City’s] best performances of the season,” the insane mix of defiance and pleasure on his face when, doubling down on his statement, he leans in and almost whispers into the microphone, “By far.” The match clearly evoked a broad range of conflicting emotions in the City coach—chiefly, happiness at a match well played, and frustration not to have been rewarded for it. If any one man deserves the most credit for stirring up that frustration, it would be Southampton defender Mohammed Salisu.
Man City really did play an excellent match, and especially an excellent second half. For almost the entire 45 minutes after halftime City did that thing they do where they become like a sumo wrestler sitting on your chest: The ball is theirs and it will remain theirs, they are in your half and they will not leave, and you can squirm and thrash and fight all you want but there is no budging them. It was as much luck as anything else that the Citizens weren’t able to find a winner after going down a goal in the seventh minute. But it wasn’t luck that Southampton gave City so much trouble, not when Salisu, one of the league’s best center backs this season, played the way he did.
Defensive stats are less sexy than attacking ones, which makes Salisu’s numbers in the match all the more impressive: 14 clearances, seven tackles, four interceptions, three blocked shots, no fouls. Defending is best conceived as a collective rather than individual endeavor, since it is most effectively accomplished with concerted movements to squeeze space and block paths and cover ground. But the lethal brilliance of City’s playing style is how it prods and pulls at defenses until they’ve been loosened and stretched wide and deep, isolating defenders and forcing them into direct confrontations against one-on-one specialists in which there is no help. The Citizens managed to stretch the Saints in that exact way, and yet time after time Salisu was there on his island winning the battle anyway:
Salisu is an uncommonly complete central defender. If you play him in a back line that sits deep and spends most of its time protecting its box from inside the box, the Ghanaian can be the biggest, densest rock in an impenetrable wall of a defense. This was the kind of setup he first made his name with at Valladolid, where he played before joining the Saints in 2020. If instead you employ a high-pressing style, with a high defensive line and acres of open land between the halfway line and your own goal line, then Salisu can be your best preventer and corrector, bursting forward to smother attacks before they begin or sprinting back to erase ones before they get too dangerous. Southampton is more of that latter kind of team, and Salisu, still only 22 years old, has thrived in a way that makes it inevitable that he’ll soon be taking yet another step up in Europe’s hierarchy when the big clubs come calling.
Of all Salisu’s gifts, it’s the lefty’s tackling that stands out the most. When he sizes up his opponent, always reading to perfection the subtle body language cues that allow him to predict where his opponent’s next step will be, he knows exactly when and where to reach in his leg order to poke the ball away. As he tackles, the length and deft accuracy of his leg resembles a telescopic golf ball retriever fishing one out of a water hazard. And as aggressive as he is when charging ahead and lunging for the ball, his actual tackles are almost always clean and composed, which, rather than smashing the ball away, allows him to knock the ball just where it needs to go for him to then pick it up himself. So many of Salisu’s interventions against City’s stars evinced that elegance of motion, none more so than his complete stonewalling of Kevin De Bruyne to snuff out what had looked like it might be City’s killing blow.
In the 2019–20 season, Salisu made his La Liga debut for Valladolid, quickly locked down a starting spot, emerged as one of the most promising young center backs in all of Spain, and inspired Southampton to trigger his release clause and bring him to England. His first season in the Premier League was hampered by injuries, but when he did play it was evident how good he was and could be. This year, having stayed healthy and thus cemented himself in the starting lineup every week (he’s played more minutes than any other Saint), he has once again erupted and proven himself one of the league’s leading talents. The next jump can’t be more than a year or two away.
It doesn’t take much time for Salisu to demonstrate everything he can do—and, again, he can really do everything. Even give him a glimpse of a chance, and he’ll dive in and snatch it away before you’ve even noticed.