Romeo Lavia showed a technical ability perfect for Manchester City, yet also enough room for improvement to make Pep Guardiola salivate over a £40m return.
There is an obvious argument to be made for Liverpool, but the Premier League opponent Pep Guardiola has felt most intrinsically linked to since arriving as Manchester City manager in summer 2016 could be Southampton.
They are the team against whom Manchester City secured their status as Centurions, the side which so attracted the Spaniard’s Nathan Redmond-directed ire, the club that raided the Etihad academy for talents to polish and eventually move on last summer.
One such gem might be returned to sender sooner than first envisaged. Gavin Bazunu, Samuel Edozie and Juan Larios will find their respective levels eventually but Romeo Lavia has already proven himself to at least eventually belong in such esteemed company.
Concerning/odd thing about Southampton is everyone can readily identify 3-4 players that should be of interest to Top 6 clubs after they get relegated.
— 🦥 Carl Anka is OOO 🦥 (@Ankaman616) April 8, 2023
“I am really impressed with what Romeo has done and is doing,” Guardiola said before the champions embarked on their weekend trip to St Mary’s. “We had, and we have, an incredible opinion about him. We thought to keep him, but maybe he would not (get) enough minutes like he has in Southampton.”
It might be a stretch to suggest Manchester City regret selling the teenage midfielder, but Lavia has been an island of excellence in a sea of general ineptitude at Southampton. He is one of few who will emerge from credit in this likely relegation season.
Those Manchester City fingerprints can be seen on the Belgian in each game and early on this was no different. The way he pauses and takes an extra moment to plot a pass through the swarm of opposition bodies mixes beautifully with an ability to launch and lead counter-presses of his own. There were times when Guardiola’s side genuinely struggled to get close to him in the first half.
As can be expected, that faded as legs and the mind – both individual and collective – started to toil against the imposing Manchester City tide. Lavia offered as little resistance as his teammates once Erling Haaland opened the scoring on the stroke of first-half stoppage-time.
Ruben Selles was yelling at the midfielder for not offering a passing angle to Bazunu at 2-0 down. Haaland made it three a few minutes later and within a quarter of an hour of that Lavia was taken off due to injury, the score having tailed off at 4-1.
That is the balance Southampton have had to try and strike with a 19-year-old whose physical development is yet to match his technical promise. A hamstring problem sidelined Lavia throughout September and October and he has completed a full 90 minutes in the Premier League only five times since August.
There remain flaws to coax and coach out beyond that. Selles and Nathan Jones share little in common but both have taken public aim at Lavia’s shortcomings this season. The latter highlighted a need to “show more domination in the games, more domination in possession and more leadership on the pitch if he wants to become the thing everyone is saying he is” in March, adding that: “I have no doubt he will be there but he needs to make more steps and everyone around him needs to be calmed down.” The manager then dropped him for the defeat to Brentford, driving the point home.
Jones faced criticism for similar remarks about controlling games. In both cases, the understandable impulse was to try and temper expectations. The compliment was that they felt the need to. And as effusive as Guardiola was in his praise, he has not worked as closely with the player as either of them.
To stand out at 19 in a team bound for the Championship is impressive, even with that obvious room for improvement. Manchester City inserted a £40m buy-back clause – and ensured it would only be activated in 2024 – for a reason. With more time and experience he could adorn the club with far more malleable magnificence than he had when he left. That was and certainly remains the plan.
The only variable might be interest from further afield. Todd Boehly can hardly be described as a visionary but Chelsea’s £50m approach for Lavia in September was just the first example of substantial eyes being cast on the midfielder; Arsenal and Man Utd are thought to have entered the fray since.
With most clubs looking for midfield reinforcements this summer, and a great deal of the attention being dominated by Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice, Lavia could be the perfect alternative for a side with as much patience as it has money. While this is a rougher diamond which might need more polishing now, it has the potential to shine even brighter.