Aston Villa return to Villa Park for the second time this week to face 18th placed Southampton.
Words: Guy Poxon | @GuyPoxon
Southampton currently sit one place below Aston Villa in the league table, having lost to Newcastle and West Ham last week.
Once a team praised for strong Premier League finishes and an excellent youth academy which could, seemingly, provide the Saints with an endless supply of high-quality youth players, Southampton are a long way from the team that thumped Aston Villa on their last meeting in the top flight.
A living hell for the Saints?
Despite woeful league form and results throughout the season – Southampton have created a number of chances.
Notably, they have a higher xG tally than Aston Villa’s at 25.01, which outperforms the rest of the bottom three.
They also have a less than desirable, but okay, expected goals against tally of 27.59 and look as if they should be on higher points on the basis of xG for and xG against throughout previous fixtures.
But Southampton have underperformed against these statistics and now find themselves in a bit of a confidence crisis. Perhaps it’s a response of fate to the Saints’ high risk strategy of selling their best players for a quick profit catching up?
Predicted Line-Up: McCarthy [GK], Bertrand, Bednarek, Stephens, Soares, Ward-Prowse, Romeu, Hojbjerg, Djepeno, Ings, Long
Two teams that look quite open
Dean Smith will have been disappointed with the way Aston Villa let Sheffield come onto them in attack last week – the experiment of a defensive block with Villa looks to have somewhat failed and Smith has come out and said that he wants his men on the front foot.
But Southampton are more than capable of playing some nice attacking football as well. Danny Ings has nine goals in 17 appearances to his name, with an xG of 6.42. Meanwhile, James Ward-Prowse looks a threat with his own four goals and one assist so far this season.
The Englishmen are Southampton’s most effective attacking players so far and Villa will want to look at keeping them both in check.
But at the back, Southampton are relying on journeyman ex-Villan Ryan Bertrand, with a similarly solid and uninspiring cohort of Soares, Bednarek and Stephens.
You have to feel that if Aston Villa go and play on the front foot, they should be able to score goals against this Southampton defence.
Not-so-Saintly in Defence
Last week against West Ham, Southampton looked incredibly shaky every time the Hammers got forward. Southampton struggled with wingers, couldn’t cope with crosses into the box and Michael Antonio’s physical presence looked far too much for the centrebacks to be dealing with.
The Saints almost nicked a point with a brilliant Danny Ings strike – if not for a cruel deflection the wrong side of the post – but in truth West Ham were able to play on the front foot for significant portions of the game.
The week before, Newcastle completed a comeback to really knock the South Coast side’s confidence. After a fine start and a couple of excellent chances and a Danny Ings goal against an overly-sloppy Newcastle defence, Southampton just failed to deal with balls into the box and Newcastle made the most of their defensive lapses. There just isn’t much quality at the back for Southampton.
With the quality Aston Villa have in attack, particularly Grealish and Trezeguet who can be quite direct threats, this looks like a game for Dean Smith to go and really attack. Even more so as it’s at Villa Park.
Or rather, where’s Johnny, to be more precise.
John McGinn has made the most remarkable progress over the last year or so, and is now a firm fans and neutrals’ favourite. He’s got three goals and two assists in the league so far, but hasn’t assisted since November 2nd against Liverpool.
McGinn probably needs a rest. He had a similar patchy vein of form last season and a short rest did him the world of good. Whilst it’s a shame to lose one of your best players – even for a game or two – Aston Villa need a fully firing John McGinn if they’re to stay in the Premier League.
The change would give Aston Villa the chance to try something new. Bring Jack back into a central role and let Trezeguet and El Ghazi run the wings? Settle on a midfield trio of Nakamba, Hourihane and Douglas Luiz?
Forcing Dean Smith into changing things up could be useful and help to catch Southampton a little off guard.
Jota could play some minutes as his passing ability could really be difficult for Southampton to deal with.
His last good spell came with Aston Villa’s first win of the season over Everton, and the hard-working Spaniard will be looking to get his Premier League career back on track after losing his place to the more physical, pacier alternatives of Trezeguet and El Ghazi.
Less of a fringe player, but Villa’s big man Wesley has Jonathan Kodjia snapping at his heels after a good performance from the Ivorian against a youthful Liverpool midweek.
But the Brazilian also found his shooting boots with a well taken run and then a compose finish into the bottom corner, and he’ll be hoping to add to his tally against the Saints.
Could Wesley be a bit more selfish?
Against Leicester and Sheffield, the opposition pressed Aston Villa’s entire back line. Engels and Hause (or Konsa) were forced to play the ball long instead of playing risky balls into the midfield, and as a result Wesley suffered through a couple of long afternoons.
His hold-up play hasn’t been seen to be one of his strengths, and out of the numerous times Wesley had to drop deeper to try and win the ball in the air, most of his efforts were in vain.
Yes, he needs to improve this aspect of his play – but it’s not his fault that teams are forcing Aston Villa into these long balls, knowing that Wesley will lose four out of five times against two centre-backs.
Aston Villa need to go toe-to-toe with these teams, playing out from the back even when being pressed – getting wingers and midfielders into the game, freeing up the fullbacks for combinations – so that the Villans can alleviate the pressure of a high press that teams are using against Smith’s system.
The answer is not playing long balls up to Wesley – at least not all of the time.
His efforts would be better spent letting McGinn, Hourihane and his wingers do more of the dirty work, and using his running ability to try and get in behind a bit more.
Such a change might come to the shock of an unsuspecting Southampton team with a dodgy defence.