Aston Villa (4), Southampton (0) – Villa Get the Formula Right and Rout the Saints

Most of the pre-match reporting was directed at the excellent recent form of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Saints team as compared to our Villans’ sputtering efforts.  In my pregame column I suggested that the Saints were playing above themselves and that our Villans had yet to reach their full potential.  On Saturday, that potential was on display.

It now appears that we can expect to see more of the same high level.  Still, even as good as the way we played, the results are never certain to always be so bountiful.

Certainly, it was fun to savor a first-rate Villa performance that started with an excellent strategy, progressed according to plan, and concluded with us still on the front foot.

The conditions were just about perfect, a cool sunny day on an immaculate pitch (though a little slick).  There was a little unease when fans at Villa Park realized that Konsa and Digne were unavailable due to COVID, meaning that Gerrard could not field exactly the same eleven that won at Brighton.   As it turned out, Calum Chambers and Ashley Young were both standouts as substitutes, as was the whole team from a defensive perspective.

As one measure of how effective our defense was, the Saints have not experienced such an overwhelming shots-on-goal differential all season or anything remotely close to it.  Our Villans recorded nine (9) shots on Fraser Forster while the Saints countered with only one (1) shot on Emi Martinez.

You do not hold a team in the top half of the Premier League to only one shot on-target without comprehensive and masterful defending.  I rue that we defenders do not get the recognition we deserve.  Still, as much as we appreciate great defense, it’s the great passes, the shots, and the goals that excite us as fans and, against the Saints, we had plenty.  That is what my report will focus on.

From the kickoff, both teams played at a lively pace with confidence.  Our Villans were very disciplined and compact when they did not have possession, forcing the Saints to feed their wingbacks.  When the wingbacks attempted to carry the ball, or distribute, all the Villa players in proximity were ready to pounce.

When Livramento lost possession on the right, courtesy of Ramsey’s impudent harassment, Coutinho came back to collect the loose ball and looked up.  Watkins immediately headed towards the right wing, a soft spot beyond Romain Perraud, and the 40-yard pass was on the money.  The fullback managed to block Ollie’s progress, but Villa retained possession. 

Coutinho joined the fray on the left, but as space was limited, he passed back to Mings at the halfway line and then tracked back to the center circle to gather the return.  With room and time to survey, the ex-Reds’ star noted that Danny Ings had created a little bit of separation from Jan Bednarek in the inside left channel. 

Coutinho zipped a pass to Danny’s right foot, allowing the striker to turn away from the Polish defender and pick out Ollie Watkins racing ahead of him into the penalty area.  This left Ollie one-on-one with Jack Stephens.  These two were, other than the goalie, the only players in the penalty area.

When Ollie made his delightful spin move, he left Stephens off balance and staggering.  Meanwhile, Fraser Forster, all 6’ 7” of him, had rushed off his line to narrow the angle but, continuing his spin Ollie lifted the ball over Forster’s left arm into the corner of the net.  The goalie’s effort to deflect was too little too late and, in the 9th minute, it was Aston Villa 1, Southampton 0.  Villa fans were ecstatic, and relieved to shed the Watford game aftertaste.

It was Villa’s first shot on goal, in fact, their first sustained possession and a clinical finish to a move right through the heart of the Saints defense.  Very soon after, Coutinho created another opportunity, this time for a long range shot from Luiz that Forster gathered in with little effort. 

While our Villans continued to press, they were relentless in getting everyone behind the ball when threatened and equally ready to break when the opportunity arose.  When John McGinn blocked an attempt by the Saints to pass into the Villa penalty area, Luiz and Ramsey combined to poke the ball loose, and Watkins immediately flashed a pass to Coutinho breaking across the halfway line. 

Coutinho immediately forwarded to Ings in the inside left channel with Ramsey making ground in the inside right channel.  What should have been another goal threat petered out when Ings rolled his ankle and had to pass the ball back.

Instead of kicking the ball out of play for Ings to get attention, Coutinho swung the ball over for Matty Cash to carry the ball down to the goal line where our energetic full back forced Elyounoussi to concede a corner.

Meanwhile, Ings was testing his ankle to confirm it was fine and the Saints paid little attention to their former teammate and focused on the corner.  It was a little high for Ramsey at the far post, but it would have been perfect for Ings racing in only for Ramsey, trying to get out of Ings’ way, to inadvertently deflect the ball out for a corner and away from Ings.

Then in the 30th minute from a scramble near the halfway line on the Saints’ right, Romeu tried to zip a pass through for Broja only for the pass to bounce off the Chelsea loanee’s thigh to Luiz who slid it back for Mings.  The Villa captain rifled the ball to Watkins’ feet, and he comfortably killed the ball and passed it back to Coutinho in one motion. Our loanee (from Barcelona), head down, turned away from the three defenders near him.

Watkins, just as immediately raced towards the penalty area and Coutinho laid an exquisite pass for our striker to collect and head into the box with Perraud a good 5-yards behind the play.  To his credit, Forster came racing outside his 6-yard box and filled as much of the goal as he could.  Watkins’ shot would have likely entered the net just inside the post or rebounded in, off the post, except that Forster’s right foot was spread-eagled enough to block the shot.  A little pull back to Coutinho, just behind and to Ollie’s left might have been a better option.

Then, in the 42nd minute, some scrambly play on the Saints right wing was broken up and Ashley Young picked up the loose ball carried it part way across the field then sprayed a pass to Matty Cash.  Somehow Coutinho was waiting on Villa’s rightwing, and Cash dropped off the ball with his master-class leader, as he sprinted past Perraud.  Coutinho led his teammate with another delightful chip that Cash ran on to deep inside the penalty area and immediately pulled back to the approaching John McGinn.  Ward-Prowse had anticipated the play and met the ball and McGinn with a perfect slide tackle.

Meanwhile, Coutinho had continued his run and as often happens with great players, the ball came directly to him.  In one fluid motion the Brazilian propelled the ball to Forster’s top right-hand corner with the goalie having no earthly chance of reaching the shot, only for it to go inches the wrong side of the upright.  Elyounoussi, who should have been marking Coutinho, but had stopped to admire, was close enough to appreciate but not close enough to prevent what would have been a magnificent goal.

Only thirty seconds later, Coutinho almost scored again.  From Forster’s goal kick, Chambers headed the ball back to Ramsey who volleyed a pass to Watkins in the inside-left channel.  Ollie faced up Livramento on the corner of the penalty area with his right foot on the ball.  He rolled the ball backward, and turning clockwise, gained a yard of space as he headed towards the goal line.  Villa’s young striker noticed that Coutinho had found a couple of yards of space just outside the 6-yard box.  The pass was perfect, and the Brazilian wizard redirected instantly but somehow Forster got one of those big feet of his in the way.

Luiz collected the ricochet and lofted the ball over the Saints’ backline for Cash to run onto, but his cross was deflected out for another corner.  A defensive header from the corner only cleared the ball as far as Ings who, facing away from the goal killed the ball and looked around and saw, of all people, Coutinho open and awaiting a pass which he instantly received.

Coutinho noted that the Saints defense was pushing away from their goal in an attempt to catch tardy Villans offside.  The Barcelona loanee sprayed a pass across to Chambers who had backed away twenty yards or more from the penalty area in the middle of the field.  The acquisition from Arsenal (for a measly $2 million) cushioned the ball with his right foot, took half a step back and chipped a perfect backspin pass over the outrushing Saints.

Simultaneously, Coutinho raced through the Saints defensive line to receive the pass and, with exquisite balance and skill, cushioned a pass to the inrushing Luiz arriving just outside the 6-yard box.  All the “other Brazilian” had to do was hit the back of the net before Fraser could throw his body in the way.  Douglas did so without a problem.  Aston Villa 2, Southampton 0 in the 44th minute.  VAR confirmed that both players had timed their runs perfectly.

That was all the excuse the two Brazilians needed for a little Samba duo – very apropos.  Then, less than a minute later, Coutinho found himself all alone against Forster.  Somehow, the Saints backline allowed Watkins to head-on a Martinez clearance to Coutinho running through alone.  Forster did an excellent job of making himself big and Coutinho’s curved effort did not curve enough, bouncing just wide of the post.

All fans, Villa’s especially, must have been breathless when the halftime whistle blew to signal the end of a scintillating 45 minutes of top class soccer. Still, us Villa fans, while pleased with the score and the performance, held memories of leads lost and the excellent opportunities that had been missed in the first half.  Fortunately, the only change that the Saints made was to insert a more defensive-minded midfielder (Yan Valery for Elyounoussi) and within a couple of minutes that paid dividends, but for the home team.

Valery’s first attempt at a long pass was sloppy and Matty Cash intercepted and carried the ball deep down the right wing where Perraud was forced to foul him.  McGinn took on the assignment, but management decided it was time for a training ground play.  Instead of looping a cross to the far post for Mings and Chambers to go for, McGinn hit a lateral ball for Luiz to meet just outside the penalty area.  Presumably, the Villa strategists saw the chance of a ricochet as well as the direct shot improving the odds for a goal. 

This well-prepared Saints team were ready and a group raced towards Luiz and the ball was blocked shortly after it was kicked.  The ricochet went back towards the right wing where Broja and McGinn competed for possession.  Of course, John won.  Then, he attempted to go around the Albanian but lost his footing in the process.  Danny Ings who had come towards the play was the first to the loose ball and he pushed it back to Coutinho who, again, had found space in the penalty area.

Four yellow shirts converged on Phillippe only for him to evade all of them and rifle a shot between Forster’s legs.  Now Villa fans could relax.  Aston Villa 3, Southampton 0 in the 52nd minute.  The Holte End went nuts.

A minute later, Villa sliced the Saints defense apart again and Ings smashed a shot that Forster did well to repel.  Then, Ramsey carried the ball over to the right and fed Coutinho who waited for Cash to make a run down the wing before guiding a precision pass for the Polish international to carry toward the goal line before pulling it back to Ings unmarked in the penalty area and in one motion the ball was dispatched into the far corner of the net.  While Ings raised his right arm reflexively as an expression of satisfaction, he immediately dropped his head and tried to downplay what was, to him, an inappropriate gesture given his years at Southampton.   His teammates, especially Ollie Watkins, had no such qualms lauding his goal in front of the Holte End.  Aston Villa 4, Southampton 0 in the 54th minute. 

Just as a reminder that anything is possible in a soccer game, in the 57th minute, out of nothing, the Saints created an excellent opportunity to score.  When Ward-Prowse fed Livramento on the wing, just inside the Villa half, the fullback had time to shape a beautifully weighted and curved pass outside of Mings for Che Adams to run onto.  With the Saints striker approaching from the inside-right channel, Martinez stood close to his left post and challenged the shooter to beat him to the wide-open net to his right.

Adams knew that he had to overpower this world-class goalie he was facing, and he pummeled the ball.  It was hit so hard that Martinez could only get his right hand to the shot.  With two hands he could have directed the ball wide to the right.  With one hand, there was no saying which way the ball would go.  In fact, the ball went almost straight up, clipping the crossbar on its way out for a corner.  A remarkable save.

Credit should go to Chambers for almost blocking the shot and for forcing Adams to rush and to Cash for being close enough to Broja to neutralize the passing option.

Coutinho continued looking to get the ball so he could create more opportunities.  His speed, skill, and anticipation meant there was nothing the Saints could do to prevent his influence.

Even when he was defending, the Brazilian was proficient.  A harsh call by the referee, Peter Banks, for interfering with Walker-Peters, who came on for the lackluster Perraud in the 58th minute, gave Ward-Prowse an opportunity to zip another cross into our 6-yard box from a good angle on the left.  Coutinho, was not pleased with the call and, as if to make the point, stood 10-yards away and deflected the freekick out for a corner with his noggin.  The crowd roared its appreciation for the effort.  You have to love this new version of the “little magician”!

With Ward-Prowse and Southampton getting an increasing number of dead ball opportunities, it seemed inevitable that the Saints would convert one for a goal and take the shine off the Villa victory.  Evidently, our Villans were determined to not let that happen.

On the follow-up corner, it was Ashley Young who made sure to head a dangerous ball in the 6-yard box over the bar.  The next corner was cleared by McGinn only to fall to Armstrong just outside the box.  Fortunately, one Villan was able to rush out and confront the shot that ended up going wide.  So, who was the Villan who put his body on the line?  Since, McGinn was preoccupied, no other than Coutinho, yet again doing his part.

With another quarter of the game to go, there was lots of time for the Saints to be spoilers, but a tremendous header by Chambers at the back post of a Ward-Price cross deprived Adams of another excellent opportunity and, when Broja bulled his way into the penalty area and set-up Ward-Price for a shot, it was Mings who blocked it.

McGinn, then, did an impersonation of Jack Grealish when he almost sat on the ball and enticed Romeu to hack away out of frustration.  The yellow card delay slowed the momentum of the Saints and, soon after, Gerrard made his first substitution (Sanson for Ings) in the 71st minute.

Over the next ten minutes, Gerrard introduced more fresh legs to protect the shutout (Bailey for Ramsey and Buendia for Coutinho).  That did not stop Ward-Prowse getting another dead-ball opportunity, this one in a better shooting angle.  It was Chambers who gave away the freekick, but he could hardly be blamed as he attempted to tackle Adams after the former Birmingham City player executed a delicious flick over our center-back’s head forcing him to attempt a slide tackle.

Adams was a touch too fast and ended up being tripped, but at least it was outside the area and the immediate danger was averted.  From the freekick, it appeared that Ollie Watkins got the important header to repel Ward-Prowse’s shot and, with ten minutes left to play, our Villans were heading in the opposite direction and eating up valuable seconds.

The prevent defense in the latter minutes meant little effective offense by either team, except for a little Scottish magic from John McGinn (Villa’s greatest bargain at only $3.4 million from Hibernian).  Close to the center of the pitch at just about the 90-minute mark, McGinn noted that Bailey was making a run behind Walker-Peters and decided to give him an opportunity to get on the scoresheet. 

Forster was caught in two minds, and he was well off his line when the ball bounced in front of the exciting prospect and Jamaican international.  With the ball slowing, Leon decided to take the ball on his superior left foot and, basically, lob over the keeper and into the far corner.  It was a difficult shot to make and, when the timing was off, it looked ugly, but who can blame him for trying?

By that time, the Saints had run out of steam, and it was Villa who were pressing at the end.  A tremendous win for our Villans.

Aston Villa: Martinez, Young, Chambers, Mings, Cash, Ramsey (Bailey 78′), McGinn, Luiz, Ings (Sanson 71′), Watkins, Coutinho (Buendía 81′).

Unused Subs: Olsen, Traoré, Iroegbunam, Chrisene, Hause, O’Reilly.

Southampton: Forster, Bednarek, Livramento, Perraud (Walker-Peters 58′), Stephens, Ward-Prowse, Stuart Armstrong, Romeu (Diallo 76′), Elyounoussi (Valery 45′), Adams, Broja.

Unused Subs: Caballero, Redmond, Adam Armstrong, Djenepo, Smallbone, Walcott.

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