By Dean Gregory
Aston Villa vs Southampton
Three losses in a row against upper-league opponents has left Villa in 17th, level on points with this weekend’s opponents, 18th placed Southampton. Villa remain ahead only by goal difference, making this arguably the first game of the season where a positive result is vital.
With four wins, three draws and 10 losses each, it is only Southampton’s -18 goal difference compared to Villa’s -7 that suggests Villa are the superior side.
Can Villa secure three points and put a buffer between them and the drop zone?
Aston Villa – W D L L L
Southampton – D W W L L
Dean Smith on Wesley criticism
“The idea was to get Wes on [against Liverpool] and he scored a really good goal, which was pleasing because I know he has been getting… at most of my press conferences I end up talking about him.
“He is a 23-year-old player, in a foreign country, in the Premier League, which is one of the toughest leagues in the world, and he has scored four goals so far in his 17 league games.
“I think some of the criticism can be a little bit too harsh at times, but you could see the reaction of the players when he scored that goal, at how pleased they were for him.”
Ralph Hasenhüttl on team fitness
“[Sofiane] Boufal is still not in the team training. He still has some issues with some movements so without an injection he is still unable to train.
“But it’s getting better and better and I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, so we can wait for him. Maybe he is also in the squad for the weekend and if he can train tomorrow we will try it again and then have a look.
“Moussa [Djenepo] is out for the weekend. He has problems with his hamstring and the risk is too big. Maybe next week he starts again. It is only because of the risk that we don’t risk him because we have a lot of games over Christmas. It’s important that he gets 100 per cent fit.
“Then we also have ill players. Kevin Danso has been out for two days and Yan Valery is out for longer. I said last week that he won’t play again this year, maybe next year he is coming back.”
Southampton have used a variety of formations with a lot of personnel changes, implying that they don’t yet know what their best lineup actually is. Their most used and most successful formation, however, has been a classic flat 4-4-2 with Shane Long and Danny Ings up top and Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens in central defence. James Ward-Prowse is the centre-mid tasked with being a creative outlet.
Their reluctance to stick to one strategy makes it difficult to pin down how they play. Average possession of 47.5% along with pass success of just 73.1% suggests they struggle to impose themselves on matches. An overall xG of 25.64 compared to a goal return of 18 implies they are not bad at creating opportunities, however they lack the quality to convert them. They are also yet to score more than two goals in any game.
Instead of trying to paint a picture of Southampton via their overall performance, it would be easier to simply analyse their latest win, a 2-1 victory over Norwich. An xG of exactly 2.00 yielded two goals, both of which were scored in the six-yard box as the result of set pieces. They managed 14 shots from 40.1% possession, suggesting they are better when they see less of the ball.
Their 27 tackles from a success rate of 71% shows they are good at winning the ball back and springing counter attacks, so they will likely look to invite Villa on and hit them on the break. Everybody on the team except for left-back Ryan Bertrand contributed with a tackle, suggesting they are not shy about getting stuck in when they need to.
It is difficult to pin down exactly how Southampton can be expected to play, but if they stick to their most successful tactic, it is likely they will be happy to allow Villa to play ball how they like. Whether or not that truly suits their own needs is anyone’s guess, frankly.
One to Watch
Southampton have managed 18 goals so far this season, equal with Norwich and better only than Newcastle and Watford. Exactly half of this tally has been provided by star striker Danny Ings. Nine goals from an overall xG of 6.42 shows he is in hot form, and does not require a killer chance to bag a goal.
His form is arguably propping Southampton up at the moment, so cutting his supply will go a long way toward helping Villa win this one.
Aston Villa 2-0 Southampton – 14-08-2004
Darius Vassell and Carlton Cole both scored in the first half to give Villa their latest home win against Southampton.
How it could play out
Before the season started, the general consensus was that a successful season for Villa would simply be one where they are not relegated. All they need to do in order to achieve that is perform better than three teams. At the moment, the difference between Villa and Southampton is balanced on a knife edge. As it stands, this match could prove to be the most important one of the entire season.
The key difference between the two sides seems to be that Villa is scoring from virtually every position, while Southampton rely almost exclusively on Ings to prop them up. With nine goals in 17 matches Ings is in good form, but his vast overperformance in terms of xG, as detailed above, surely can’t be sustainable for much longer. Southampton need to find a plan B from somewhere, or they are in serious trouble.
Additionally, the 36 goals they have conceded is the worst defensive record in the league. Villa have had their defensive woes, but this is another area in which they are currently outperforming their opponents. Couple a one-track offensive plan with an unreliable defence and you have a recipe for disaster.
None of this is helped by their constant experimentation with formations. They have used 11 different formations and of the 1530 minutes of regulation time in the league so far, their most used formation, the 4-4-2, has seen 373 minutes of action. The complete list of formations they have used is:
Is there anything they haven’t tried yet, this side of an 8-2-0? This level of inconsistency does not help players who are surely bereft of confidence.
The point is, both teams have their issues. Villa still don’t seem to have fully clicked as a squad and lack cutting edge, despite showing they are capable, while Southampton are stuck in some form of limbo where they can’t find the right formula.
Both teams will be under no illusions about how vital this match is, so expect 110% effort from both sides, and perhaps even some dirty play.
Aston Villa 1-0 Southampton
This verdict was made with those claret and blue goggles firmly in place. Villa simply need a win here to keep up with that survival goal. Also, it wouldn’t be a surprise if a red card or two made an appearance either. One thing is for sure; it won’t be pretty.