Aston Villa (3) vs Southampton (4) – Which Way Next

The two teams who kicked off at Villa Park on Sunday at noon, UK time, found themselves in the same unfamiliar territory, at the upper reaches of the Premier League and with much to play for. A victory for Aston Villa would see them tied for second, with a game in-hand and only one point behind Liverpool, who they had already beaten, while a Southampton win would leapfrog them over the Villa and into a tie for third place. While still early in the season, this fixture had a feeling of great import.

As for the teams, they arrived from two very different worlds. Southampton Saints, from the balmy south coast, were relative newcomers to top-flight soccer having first only reached the top tier in the 1960’s and had yet to win any silverware. In contrast, the Villans from gritty Birmingham, were part of the bedrock of English soccer, having been founded in 1874 and sporting trophies galore before their rivals had even got going. Both had struggled in recent years.

What they had in common was that each featured a remarkably talented homegrown player. James Ward-Prowse joined the Saints as an 8-year-old and reached the first team as a 16-year-old prodigy, but for most of his tenure (Sunday was his 27th birthday) he was considered too much of a lightweight. That changed under Austrian manager Ralph Hasenhüttl who made him the team captain after he took over the team in 2018, and his star responded by growing in stature and production.

Jack Grealish had a similar trajectory at the Villa. In fact, he started with their youth academy even younger, as a six-year-old, and also played with the first team at a tender age (17 years old) and, likewise, was also considered unlikely to reach his full potential (his immature behavior off the field dwarfed his on-the-field accomplishments). For Grealish, it was the appointment of new manager Dean Smith (like Hasenhüttl, in 2018) that led to his selection as captain of the team with a similar dramatic response from the player.

Now, at 25, Grealish has matured into arguably England’s most exciting player while Ward-Prowse is renowned as the best dead-ball kicker in the Premier League. Both have been capped by England and both play in the midfield, with the major difference being that Grealish is the more likely to score and assist from open play whereas Ward-Prowse is more likely to score and assist from set plays. They are equally tough and resilient despite their modest size.

While no soccer game is a battle between two individual players, this game turned out to be as close as a dual of two superstars as you are likely to see. It started that way and ended that way.

Other than who might win this individual rivalry, fans were curious as to whether the Saints’ short string of success, including knocking Everton off their top spot in their last fixture, would continue or whether they would be stymied by the Villans getting back to their winning ways after being swept aside convincingly by Leeds in their previous game. The exclusion of spectators in the stands had offset home advantage (away wins outnumbering home wins to date this season), so Villa’s home venue was not a factor.

Villa manager Dean Smith made one change to his line-up, but it was a significant one. Trezeguet, the Egyptian international, a consistent and industrious workhorse on the right flank was considered less of an offensive threat than the club’s recent signing from Lyon, Bertrand Traoré, who got the nod.

On the other side of the ball, Villa fans would be somewhat uneasy seeing Theo Walcott in a red and white kit. This would be only his second appearance since joining on loan from Everton, where his goal back in July single-handedly almost pushed the Villa into relegation. Before that, he broke the spirit of an outclassed Aston Villa in the 2015 FA Cup Final, with an unstoppable volley that opened the floodgates for the Gunners to go on to win.

The stage was set, and Southampton immediately found a rhythm, spraying passes around with accuracy and assurance. Villa’s high press, which worked so well against Liverpool, seemed to be missing Trezeguet’s hustle. To be fair, Traoré’s teammates were similarly off the pace and, with Ward-Prowse taking control deep in his own half, the Saints were soon making inroads down the left flank where Walcott was teaming up with his fullback, Ryan Bertrand, a Villa fan favorite when he played for the team in 2014.

It was Bertrand who created the first opportunity, feeding the ever-lively Ings, running into space behind Cash. A shot was on at the near post but Ings chose a pull-back instead. Mings, who was alert to it, slid into the path and cleared the danger. The game had barely started and the Saints, looking dangerous, had a corner.

This was Ward-Prowse’s first opportunity for a dead ball kick and the birthday boy did not disappoint, hitting the cross with enough authority and accuracy that Ings was able to meet it early and skim it enough to clear Mings behind him and land in the danger zone behind. In the mix, Konsa got a foot to it, only to redirect it into the corner of his own net with goalie Martinez having no chance to intervene. Saints had a 1-0 lead with only 1:57 on the clock, or so it seemed.

A VAR check established that Che Adams was a hair offside and interfered with play and the Villa caught a huge break. Rather than settle the Villa down, the loss of a goal seemed to spur Southampton and after six minutes Konsa’s failure to deal with a pass up the Saints’ right wing allowed Adams to gain possession and enough space to find Ings running down the middle. With the Villa defense stretched, Ings found Walcott coming up on his left and the loanee hit the pass first time, forcing Martinez to leap upwards and backwards to make sure it did not sneak in the net. It skimmed the top of the bar and went behind – safe to breathe again.

Soon after, Konsa somewhat offset his two errors with a beautiful long-range pass that found Targett in acres of space halfway into the Saints half. Grealish was already moving and the fullback showed commendable skill to redirect the ball on the volley to where his captain could gather it, open, in the penalty area. A delayed offside was called with Grealish judged to have moved a split-second too soon. Barkley put the pass into the back of the net uncontested, just in case.

Villa kept up the pressure and Grealish almost gave the Villa the lead. A perfect long pass by Mings down the left for Watkins to chase necessitated the Saints’ backline conceding a throw-in. The quickly taken throw caught the defense off-guard, and slick passing between Watkins, Barkley and Targett found Grealish with space just inside the area, enough to swivel and hit a curler aimed at the far corner of the net. A deflection off a defender had goalie Alex McCarthy scrambling across his line and the ball skidding just wide of the post. Villa’s striker, Ollie Watkins, was poised, open, just a couple of yards away, ready for the rebound or tap-in that never materialized. Villa’s best opportunity to open the scoring had slipped them by.

Still, Villa continued to look dangerous with Luiz smartly intercepting a Saints’ pass in their half and immediately dispatching the ball to Traore on the wing. The Burkinabe international, demonstrating that he had adjusted to the tempo of the game, turned Ward-Prowse inside out and forced him into a clumsy tackle, and a yellow card, just outside the area. Perhaps Traore should have taken the free kick because Barkley’s effort did not even clear the wall with the 6’ 0” Romeu able to get his head to it. An excellent opportunity was wasted.

The Saints began to find a tempo while Villa lost some momentum and that soon proved to be pivotal. Saints pressure on the left gave Walcott an opportunity for a shot that was deflected for a throw-in across the field. A simple give-and-go between Ward-Prowse and Walker-Peters afforded the Saint’s fullback enough daylight ahead of Targett’s attempted sliding block. The cross was harmless, but he was tumbled by Targett’s follow-through. The guilty party showed justifiable concern. The ensuing free kick was in a perfect spot for a player of Ward-Prowse’s skill. Lined-up with the 6-yard box and only a couple of yards outside the area, it must have looked like a chip-shot to this keen golfer. Sure enough, Ward-Prowse laid the ball on a line with a slight rotation towards the Saints forwards running in.

Villa’s defense must have been aware of their predicament with two dangerous strikers and three tall defenders to mark and not enough large bodies to match up. Zonal marking had been effective enough against corners this season but was painfully inadequate for this free kick with John McGinn, all 5’ 8” of him, having to mark the 6’ 6” Danish defender Jannik Vestergaard, Ward-Prowse’s target. The header was in goalie Martinez’s top left corner before he could even move. Villa 0 Saints 1 and 18 minutes on the clock.

The home team responded positively to the setback and almost tied the game with a well-constructed play of their own. They took advantage of the Saints being caught a man short when Bednarek landed on his head after a mid-air collision with Ollie Watkins. With the Saints team calling for a whistle for their teammate’s head injury, the referee let play continue and Grealish forced a foul just outside the area. The location was intriguingly similar to that enjoyed by their opponents just a few minutes prior, albeit on the left and not the right.

The Villans had prepared their own scheme for such an eventuality. Their decoys comprised two tall aerial threats (Mings and Konsa) in the mix and Jack Grealish standing just inside the area, barely 10 yards away from the kick taker, Ross Barkley. These decoys must have been convincing because when the whistle blew and Traore drifted back to the edge of the area and square in front of the goal, he was able to set and wait for a slide-rule pass while the Saints defense paused. Truth be told, the new signing did not hit the ball cleanly. Still, the strike was firm enough and heading through the bodies goalward with McCarthy likely unsighted. Credit to Walker-Peters who got a touch on the shot, enough to have it zip just beyond the goalie’s right post.

The Villa team must have been thinking that their bad luck with deflections was payback for their good luck a few weeks back against Liverpool when three of their goals were deflection assisted. Then they had another rude surprise. Traore, who had begun to feature prominently, went down on his own. It transpired that the timing problem on his shot had caused him to strain his groin – he was out of the game and Trezeguet was in.

Within a couple of minutes, the Saints added a second goal out of nothing. Walcott found a pocket of space just ahead Villa’s back line and Romeu found him with a pass. As he moved the ball towards the head of the penalty area, Luiz, who had been caught behind the play, tried to impose himself, but Walcott brushed him away. Luiz, with lots of support around, should have backed off but, not for the first time, he felt compelled to commit an obvious foul. Five yards outside the area, this portended disaster. Ward-Price was all business, hitting the ball with such a combination of power and whip that it easily cleared the defensive wall hitting the top left corner of the net before Martinez was anywhere near reaching it. Villa 0 Saints 2 and 33 minutes gone.

This took the wind out of Villa’s sails and Dean Smith must have been looking to get to the halftime mark to regroup his troops. Again, out of nothing, that plan was shattered. Adams managed to get possession on the right wing and hit a speculative cross towards the edge of the penalty area where Walcott was one-on-one with Matty Cash. That should have been chump change for the fullback and an easy headed clearance. Unfortunately, he misjudged the flight of the ball and he found himself jumping under it with Walcott waiting behind for him to miss it. In desperation, Cash chose the lesser of two evils and took the hand-ball yellow to prevent a golden scoring opportunity.

History, as we know, does repeat itself and Ward-Prowse repeated his brilliant strike of just 10 minutes earlier, only from 5 yards closer to the goal. Villa 0 Saints 3 and 43 minutes gone. This was quite a present for the birthday boy. Southampton had manufactured (or been given) chances for three shots on goal and had converted each one. This was the Leeds game compounded with nothing going right for the Claret and Blues. At least, for the 15-minute interval, they could take stock without the score line getting worse.

What was evident after the break was that Grealish had decided to up the tempo. In a two-minute span they came close to scoring twice. A quickly taken freekick on the left found Grealish darting into space up the line and immediately spinning on the ball to lift a perfect cross for Trezeguet to come in from his wing for a diving header. McCarthy did well to get his feet behind the ball at the near post. Then, Luiz carried the ball down the right wing and swung over a tempting cross that Grealish was able to head down, off the ground, and on its way toward the corner of the net. The goalie did even better this time, pushing the ball away with his outstretched left hand just before it got past him.

Pressing to get back in the game means exposure to counterattacks. Sure enough, when three Villans surrounded Ward-Prowse inside his own half, it meant he had options and, demonstrating composure, he found a gap through which to slide a pass to Armstrong in space. The winger cut inside and found Danny Ings to the left of the Villa penalty area. Cash was there covering, seemingly well-positioned with Konsa close by to assist. How naïve. The ex-Liverpool player, who started as youth-player in the Saints’ organization, scores consistently from this range. His shift onto his right foot and bullet shot that kissed the underside of the crossbar on its way into the net was all too predictable. Villa 0 Saints 4 and 57 minutes on the clock.

To their credit, Villa managed to keep their composure, avoiding showing frustration, and getting right back to business despite the ugly score line. A break by Grealish that almost caught the Saints’ backline asleep, was just cleared in the nick of time by Jack Stephens who had replaced Bednarek at halftime. From the ensuing corner, clever passing freed Grealish up to carry the ball into the penalty area and, this time, Grealish conjured up a delightful scoop pass while running as Mings headed towards the goal. Mings’ head caressed the cross into a perfect arc beyond the reach of the goalie and into the far corner of the net. Finally, something to show for their efforts. Villa 1 Saints 4 and 61 minutes (after an hour of frustration).

Over the next ten minutes, Trezeguet had another three excellent chances that he converted into goal-worthy efforts only for the goalie to block one, turn the other over the bar and get help from a sliding Vestergaard to repel another. Watkins then turned provider, setting up Mings, who had joined the attack, only for the effort to be diverted behind. Mings again came close, getting to a corner to head powerfully but not beyond the reach of McCarthy, who tipped it over.

A knock to Bertrand necessitated the Saints replacing him with Ibrahima Diallo, while Danny Ings had to be replaced by Shane Long following an unfortunate collision with three Villans and an awkward fall.

The injury breaks seemed to give Villa a chance to catch their collective breath and keep pushing, despite the overwhelming odds against them making a game of it. After 88 minutes, Douglas Luiz took his first shot of the game and forced a good save from McCarthy. The next foray came from Watkins who dribbled through a quartet of Saints, with only the goalie left to beat. He tried to blast the ball between the goalie and his near post but was denied with the ball bouncing out. Grealish was the quickest to react, closely followed by Diallo. The collision flattened the Villa captain and the referee pointed to the penalty spot with nobody arguing.

When the Villa captain picked up the ball, the natural assumption was that he was serving himself the best scoring opportunity he was likely to get. Then, in a surprise to all, he placed the ball and nodded to the young striker, Watkins, who could not have handled the moment better, waiting a moment after the whistle while calmly eying the goalie’s first move (to Watkins’s left) and crashing the ball into the opposite side of the net. Villa 2 Saints 4 and 91 minutes gone (and 5 more minutes of stoppage time). Watkins grabbed the ball out of the net and ran back to the halfway line. There was more business to do.

In the 94th minute, McGinn sent Grealish on another mission down the left and Walker-Peters struggling to keep up. Credit to the young fullback that, when Grealish turned in, only about 12 yards from the goal, he managed to respond and block the shot. A couple of minutes later, it was Luiz who sprayed the pass from inside his own half to Grealish who turned inside, but well outside the penalty area. Noticing that there was a channel open to the near post and that McCarthy was setting up to favor a shot to the far post, Grealish smartly pulled the trigger and found what he was looking for, a shot skimming over the grass, and just inside the near post. Villa 3 Saints 4 and 96 minutes gone (and only seconds to go). A frantic 30 seconds ended with Watkins blocking a Saints’ clearance only for the whistle to indicate time was up.

What a bizarre game (or, you might say, two games). Villa outshot the visitors 19 to 9 and had ten shots on target (and 3 goals), while Southampton managed 9 shots, only 4 on target (but an outstanding conversion ratio of 100%).

It’s rare to give up four goals at home, drop three points to a rival and yet be able to achieve solace from lessons learned. Undoubtedly Dean Smith will point out the obvious: start on the front foot, don’t give up unnecessary free kicks around the penalty area and take heart that you can score goals against any team in the Premier League. We will find out how well they learn next week at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn; Ross Barkley, Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traoré, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Jed Steer, Conor Hourihane, Bjorn Engels, Ahmed Elmohamady, Marvelous Nakamba, Keinan Davis, Trezeguet

SOUTHAMPTON (4-4-2): Alex McCarthy, Kyle Walker-Peters, Jan Bednarek, Jannick Vestergaard, Ryan Bertrand, Stuart Armstrong, Romeu, James Ward-Prowse, Theo Walcott, Danny Ings, Che Adams

SUBS: Jack Stephens, Shane Long, Nathan Redmond, Moussa Djenepo, Ibrahima Diallo, Dan Nlundulu, Fraser Forster

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