Southampton have not proven the most fruitful of opponents for Villa in recent times, the 4-3 reverse at Villa Park the most recent of eight winless games against the Saints. So, heading into last night’s fixture you could be forgiven for feeling some trepidation, particularly on the back of three straight defeats on the road including the baffling mid-week loss at Turf Moor.
Hope came in the form of that scintillating first half at Burnley and the fact that Southampton came into the match on a less than impressive run of one win in seven league games.
Dean Smith, as is his way, named an unchanged starting line up with new £14 million man Morgan Sanson taking up his place on the bench.
For the Saints, James Ward-Prowse, who celebrated his 22nd birthday in spectacular goalscoring fashion in B6 started, but Shane Long, so often the scourge of Villa watched on from the bench as we got underway.
The early exchanges saw Villa having more of the ball, Jack Grealish with plenty of touches and a typically skilful run in the opening few minutes before Ollie Watkins served notice of his intentions pulling an effort just wide.
However, Southampton replied with a chance of their own shortly after. An exquisite flick on the turn from Danny Ings who laid off to Stuart Armstrong for the strike. Matty Cash appeared guilty of an outstretched arm as the ball was struck directly at him by Armstrong, however, after a short VAR review Villa were favoured by the technology and no penalty was awarded. I have to admit it looked as though the arm of Cash was away from the body and I expected a spot-kick, but who knows the handball rule these days?
Southampton’s chance spurred them into life and set the tone for a first-half which they would largely dominate, providing a stern examination of the Villa defence which had kept nine clean sheets so far this campaign.
Cash stole in to clear ahead of Ings in the area on twenty minutes, the Saints continuing to starve Villa of the possession they craved and looking considerably more threatening. Former Villa loanee Bertrand became the next Saint to go close with a strike on the half-hour mark.
Villa would have been grateful to make it to half time level, having spent much of the first period under the cosh, but then the sucker punch arrived on forty minutes.
Grealish the architect with yet another assist as his delightful ball was nodded home by Ross Barkley, bringing the third goal of what is proving to be a productive loan spell.
Southampton were surely feeling hard done by to head down the tunnel a goal behind, but credit must go to Villa for demonstrating defensive organisation and grit whilst retaining the ruthlessness in attack which saw them lead.
The second half resumed with both sides unchanged.
The second half began as a continuation of the first, Villa with more defensive work to carry out. Tyrone Mings produced an excellent block early on as Southampton exerted more pressure before Barkley gave away a free kick in exactly the kind of position all of a claret and blue persuasion had been dreading. This time, however, unlike back in Birmingham, Ward-Prowse failed to beat the wall.
The game was still being characterised at this point by Villa’s defensive organisation in the face of pressure from the Saints, whilst retaining their ability to threaten on the break.
Former Birmingham City man Che Adams replaced Walcott just after the hour as Southampton looked to find other keys to pick the Villa lock.
As the half wore on Ralph Hasenhüttl carried the increasingly exasperated, borderline manic expression, of a man on the edge as the clock ticked on with the advantage still Villa’s.
Villa were starting to look comfortable with the lead theirs to defend when suddenly Martínez was called on to produce a heroic stop at point-blank range from Adams. I have said it before and I will continue to say it, Martínez has to be the signing of the season.
Again, a Saints chance was followed by a period of increased attacking tempo from the home team, and again Villa stood firm.
Mings produced a heart-stopping back pass late on in the half, which was perilously close to being caught by Ings, this will inevitably invite further accusations the England centre half can be too casual. For what it’s worth, my personal feeling is that although guilty of the odd lapse, he gives far more than he takes from the defensive cause and is a positive influence on the backline.
Further nail-biting followed for Villa fans as Nathan Redmond’s deflected strike went over late on. Immediately after Villa looked in huge trouble, Martínez producing another world-class save, followed by two defensive blocks in the box, before Villa finally, desperately, cleared. Meanwhile, in the technical area, Hasenhüttl’s blood pressure reached hitherto dangerously unheard-of levels.
Six minutes of injury time brought yet more drama as the insanity of the modern-day, VAR era offside rules meant Danny Ings shirt was adjudged to be the off and his late, late goal, did not stand.
In summary, Villa benefited from more than a little VAR luck but produced the perfect away performance. Defensive organisation and grit combined with that familiar menace going forward, on the whole, a job well done.
Eighth place and Europe once again in our sights.
Man of the Match:
For me, it has to be Emiliano Martínez, who on more than one occasion produced stops of blockbuster proportions to protect that slender lead.
Up the Villa!