Southampton (1), Aston Villa (0) – Villa hit rock-bottom

Dean Smith was fired because the Saints beat the Villans?  Kind of!  Christian Purslow had to decide on whether to stick with Manager Dean Smith or let him go before the situation for the club got any worse and do it right away.

Fate did not deal Smith a good hand leading into the Southampton fixture.  In fact, it was a desperately bad hand.  The team’s losing streak had already hit four games and he was faced with the unavailability of Ezri Konsa, Douglas Luiz, Danny Ings, Morgan Sanson, Bertrand Traore, and Trezeguet, and rumors that Leon Bailey was not 100% while his opponents could field a team with only one change and all their players very familiar with their teammates.

The only way to beat this suddenly solid Saints defense was to generate threats down the wing. That forced Smith to include El Ghazi and Bailey.  He had no other wingers with the necessary experience.  Unfortunately, both El Ghazi and Bailey had found themselves with little time starting, and thanks to injuries to others, minimal practice time with their new teammates.

This lack of cohesion showed early in the game.  Bailey wandered off his right-wing position when a tussle for the ball on the Villa’s left wing just inside their half created a loose ball headed towards the center spot.  It appeared that it was either Ward-Prowse or Emi Buendia who were best positioned to take possession, though McGinn and Bailey were also close at hand.

The Argentinian failed to commit to a tackle, appearing to try to poke the ball past Ward-Prowse to Bailey.  The effect was that the deflection off Buendia caused the clearance by the Saints captain to gain spin and height as it travelled to the edge of Villa’s penalty area.  Southampton’s lone striker Che Adams and Tuanzebe each overran the ball and it landed against the back of Cash’s leg, bounced, and sat for a split second, enough time for Adam Armstrong to run onto and lash a left-footed volley between Cash and Tuanzebe from just outside the area.

It was a stunning shot that Martinez barely moved to before it hit the back of the net.  Southampton 1, Aston Villa 0in the 3rd minute.  The look on Smith’s face said it all.  Whether his “we are doomed” reaction transferred to his players is hard to tell, but it could not have helped.

When Steven Bergwijn scored a similarly unexpected goal in the 8th minute of Villa’s game at Tottenham Stadium in May, our Villa team went on to outplay their opponents and triumph 2-1.  Nobody expected this Villa team to respond that way and they did not.

Still, the most noticeable player after the Villa kicked off was a Villan, none other than Anwar El Ghazi, not for the right reasons.   Full of ambition to make his presence known, he decided to use foul means to block Livramento in the 11th minute and picked up a yellow card for his rash behavior (not a wise move, especially with most of the game still to play).  El Ghazi seemed to have forgotten that indiscretion when, just 12 minutes later, he showed his annoyance at Livramento for stripping him of the ball by dragging the wingback to the ground. 

Much to everyone’s amazement, the Villa player did not receive a second yellow (and a game exit card).  Still on the field two minutes later El Ghazi found himself with a good scoring opportunity only for the shot to go high and wide.  His new manager will undoubtedly associate that passage of play with the young Dutchman, and it will not help their relationship get off on a positive note.

When our Villans reached halftime, still only 1-0 down and still fielding eleven players, it was a relief.  We could, potentially, gain an away point.  Thanks to Martinez, it was not 3-0.  His speed in getting across his line to face Stuart Armstrong at the far post with no claret shirt in sight unsettled the Scotsman and he skied the ball over the bar in the 9th minute.  Then, when Ward-Prowse got all of a shot in the 32nd minute our goalie did brilliantly to get a strong left hand to push the ball around the post.

The second half did see a more animated performance by the lads from Brum, especially by Ollie Watkins.  He did an outstanding job creating space against Bednarek and Ward-Prowse and setting up an opportunity for Buendia.  Last season’s Championship player of the year’s shot was just wide of the post.  Then, in the 60th minute, Watkins’s shot, after an insightful pass by Buendia, was deflected into the side netting.

Despite lots of huffing and puffing, Villa didn’t come close to threatening again, and McCarthy basically got the night off.  Martinez, meanwhile, made yet another brilliant save from Che Adams in the 66th minute pushing a goal-bound header around the post at full-stretch.

With no leadership on the field exhorting teammates to do better, Smith rolled the dice with substitutions and showed his soft spot for the youngsters.  Ramsey, Davis, and Archer came on for a run.  Nothing worked and Villa’s fans everywhere were left wondering, “what next?”

Just two days later we found out when Christian Purslow announced that Smith and his assistant, Craig Shakespeare, were on their way out.  It was a sad way to end an illustrious reign as Villa’s manager.  Smith will be remembered for his success in getting the team promoted to the Premier League and preventing their almost immediate fall back into the Championship.  He probably did as well as anyone could have, and he paved the way for a different kind of manager to take the team into Europe.  He was admired and loved by the fans for his honesty and taking the heat for his players.  We will miss him.

Good luck Dean.

Southampton: McCarthy, Salisu, Walker-Peters, Livramento, Bednarek, Elyounoussi (Diallo 76′), Romeu, Stuart Armstrong (Lyanco 56′), Ward-Prowse, Adam Armstrong (Broja 81′), Adams

Unused Subs: Djenepo, Broja, Forster, Tella, Diallo, Long, Lyanco, Perraud, Walcott

Aston Villa: Martinez, Tuanzebe, Mings, Cash, Targett, Buendía (Archer 71′), El Ghazi (Davis 79′), Nakamba (Jacob Ramsey 63′), Bailey, McGinn, Watkins

Unused SubsSteer, Hause, Aaron Ramsey, Young, Philogene-Bidace, Carney Chukwuemeka

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