Villa began the run of important games against teams that supporters and players expect to get points from. And — honestly — need point from. The Holiday period is one that has not treated Aston Villa well for what feels like..... decades. But Dean Smith and Jack Grealish sought to change that at Villa Park on the Winter Solstice (and my brother’s birthday — happy birthday Jack!).
El Ghazi game away a free kick in the third minute with an obvious and dumb handball. Ward-Prowse kept the shot on target but Heaton grabbed it. It was a worrying sign of Villa sloppiness.
A minute later John McGinn stuck a leg out and blocked a Southampton pass. But while going to ground he got is left ankle caught under him. The Scottish player of the year looked in considerable pain — and was subbed off for Nakamba. McGinn was helped down the tunnel — and was putting no weight on the hurt leg. Not good — ahead of the busy holiday schedule.
The first chance of the day fell to El Ghazi after former Southampton man Matt Targett rolled a perfect cross into the box. It went all the way to the far post where El Ghazi tracked it down and fired a quick shot. The keeper’s outstretched arm deflected the close range shot away.
On the other side of the pitch — it was Ryan Bertrand who hit a bullet cross to Shane Long — but the header was over the bar. The end-to-end action continued — El Ghazi and Guilbert played a lovely one-two down the right. But Wesley couldn’t keep a shot from a low cross on target.
On the next attack — Southampton made it count. Engels tried a long ball over the top to El Ghazi. It was headed away and Southampton launched a quick counter attack. A ball over the top meant it was Shane Long and Engels in a footrace. Long won. Heaton saved it but the rebound was pounced on by Ings — who make it 0-1. Minutes later Southampton could have made it two — but for a wonderful covering tackle by Engels.
The goal looked to rattle Villa. Sloppy passes, easy giveaways, and miscommunications dominated in the post-goal period. Oh and Southampton attacks. Lots of chances.
At the half an hour mark things got worse. Southampton got a corner after another counter attack— and a simple header from Stephens into the goal.
The Villa players looked a dejected group walking away from their own goal to restart the match while the visitors celebrated. The nerves grew and so did the mistakes. The tactics broke down at one point where the Villa defense passed it back and forth for what must have been a dozen passes. Zero midfield dropped to help. El Ghazi was so far forward on the right that he was basically out of play. Eventually Jack dropped in and tried to move the ball up the field.
Villa eventually got control of themselves — but not really any control of the match. Southampton had an easy route down their left — Villa’s right. El Ghazi was offering no coverage for Guilbert — who continued to push up the pitch on attacks. Guilbert managed to get a shot on target before the end of the half — but the ensuing corner came to nothing. Thankfully the halftime whistle eventually blew — ending a dominate Southampton performance.
During the break — I changed kits, made more coffee, and added a little something to coffee hoping to change fortunes and/or survive the second half.
No changes were made on either side.
The half started with Villa earning a corner down their left — with Grealish working hard. Engels headed it back across but no one could get to it. But it was a positive start.
Then it was not.
Southampton make a simple pass out to the right. It rolls easily to the wing. The cross was blocked by Nakamba — but it fell right to Ings... again. And again he made no mistake with the tight angle. 0-3 to the visitors. Nakamba needs to actually clear the cross and not just touch it down. The defenders need to be on their toes and clear the ball. Neither happened... so goal.
Kodjia came on for Hourihane. Poor day from the Irish midfielder... amid a slew of poor performances.
Mr. VAR denied a Southampton handball in the box.
Grealish kept trying to push the offense forward... but was getting very little support from anyone else in the midfield.
Redmond could have made it four — after beating Guilbert to a header.
I’m no tactics coach. But one thing is obvious from watch today. The midfield is not doing enough. I don’t know if that is personnel or tactics or effort. But the attack (be it just Wesley or Wesley and Kodjia or El Ghazi, Welsey & Jack) is not connected with the midfield. The defense is not connected with the midfield — with the exception of occasional attacks with the wing backs and wide players. Aston Villa are not playing as a cohesive unit. This made sense in September — but the group has played together long enough that new arrivals aren’t an excuse anymore. Dean Smith needs to figure it out. Must be said — McGinn’s early exit clearly is part of problem today as well.
While I was musing on tactics — El Ghazi got a yellow card and was subbed off for Trezeguet. Poor day from El Ghazi and final sub for Villa.
Kodjia looked positive playing up top with Wesley.
With 16 minutes left — Jack Grealish showed his finishing skill. It came off a corner — it was cleared and Jack was waiting at the edge of the box. The Captain settled it well and finished it perfectly into the net. A moment of hope and quality at Villa Park.
Villa earned a pair of free kicks in good spots — but neither one were turned into chances. A corner kick at 80’ was easily grabbed by the keeper.
Southampton could have killed the match on the counter attack but the two central defenders and Heaton did enough against three attacker on the break.
Villa pushed and pushed — but in the end it was all too late. Grealish was the star — he was the driving (and sometimes only) force for Villa. A really poor first 60 minutes could not be overcome by attacking effort against a defensive Southampton side. It was nice to see the fight. It was not nice to watch the first 60 minutes.