Five defeats in a row is not the form Dean Smith had in mind since Aston Villa last managed three points, away to Manchester United at Old Trafford. After the loss at Southampton, the boss is now the league’s most likely to get the sack.
Let’s take a look at the key talking points in the latest 1-0 loss to Ralph Hasenhüttl’s determined side.
Walking the line
I don’t like to pick on individuals, but Anwar El Ghazi’s poor performance, particularly in the first-half, was far too noticeable and significant not to mention.
This game was a big chance for the winger to make his mark and wiggle his way back into the Aston Villa starting lineup on a consistent basis. Instead, what happened was quite the opposite.
His poor display was evidenced straight away through his off-the-ball work, whereby a lack of tracking back allowed the Saints an opening and a good chance for the hosts to double their lead after an early Adam Armstrong strike. Just minutes later, the winger was shown a yellow card for a foul on attacking full-back Tino Livramento — who caused El Ghazi all sorts of trouble down the Southampton right all game.
From the off it was obvious El Ghazi was struggling to handle his defensive duties, as time and time again, the red and whites breezed through the Villa midfield and fashioned a number of chances for themselves. This has proven to be a huge problem area for the Villans.
The Dutchman also struggled when on the ball. While trying to be positive and direct with his dribbling, poor decision-making and very little support from his teammates meant he was crowded out and tackled easily by the home side. The lack of creativity seen over the course of the season was apparent once again, with fellow winger, Leon Bailey, also finding it difficult going forward.
El Ghazi was lucky not to have received a red card midway through the half, after another cynical foul on tormentor Livramento. Many believe this particular incident was more severe than the one that warranted his earlier booking, so the complaints from the Saints were unsurprising. At this stage, Dean Smith should have withdrawn El Ghazi. It was clear he was having a torrid time on the pitch, and given he was walking a fine line with the referee, his day should have been cut short.
Yet what came next was a tidy piece of work down the wing, including a one-two with Emi Buendía, allowed him in behind. After leaving his opponent for dead, a great chance opened up for El Ghazi to level the game, but a terribly executed shot saw the ball travel well wide of Alex McCarthy’s goal — Villa’s biggest chance of the game squandered.
The visitors were starting to weave themselves into the game at this point, and some more nice work saw the left winger break into the box with an opening at goal and...
Down he goes. Embarrassing.
A series of boos rang out in the direction of AEG who, despite getting straight back to his feet, dived. Another huge call from the referee, who once again did not feel the incident was deserving of a second yellow card.
The half-time whistle would soon follow, which was music to the ears to most of the team, but especially Anwar after his mostly abysmal 45 minutes.
Many in the stadium thought the break would spell the end of his night, but to everyone’s surprise he emerged from the tunnel ready to resume action.
The opening exchanges were positive for the man who scored 10 goals last season, as he saw a lot of the ball and was a part of a number of well-worked exchanges in the Southampton half. He saw a header go marginally wide of the far post as Villa came out for the second-half determined to get back into the game.
Moments later, another attempt, this time a powerful effort from range, was tipped over by McCarthy, with Villa piling on the pressure early on, winning several corners and creating far more chances.
The game was wide open at this point and calling out for someone to take it by the scruff of the neck. A seemingly apprehensive Aston Villa team could not break through and level the game, however.
El Ghazi saw a good amount of the ball and put in cross after cross into the Southampton box, but each one lacked any quality or conviction to find a teammate and make a difference.
His night was eventually ended on minute 79, being replaced by Keinan Davis on his first appearance of the season.
All in all, a truly disappointing day for El Ghazi. His night consisted of a real lack of quality in the final third and a total calamity defensively that nearly saw him receive his first dismissal since that controversial day at Elland Road a few years ago.
A tale of two halves
As Dean Smith mentioned in his post-match interview, “It was very much a game of two halves.” His Aston Villa squad simply could not cope in the first showing, but improved considerably in the second.
After a cagey first couple of minutes, a looping deflection travelled over the heads of the Aston Villa defence before ricocheting off Matty Cash and into the path of Adam Armstrong. The Southampton striker unleashed a superb strike that left Emi Martínez with no chance. Villa were down inside the opening three minutes of the game, eradicating the small amount of optimism the fans projected pre-match.
While Villa, like their supporters, were fired up and wanting to bounce back before the game, they appeared dejected after the opener and ceded all control to Southampton. Hasenhüttl’s side were brimming with confidence — unsurprising given they went into this game off the back of two wins and a draw.
The Saints came at Villa from all angles, with both full-backs bursting down the wings, continuing their good form, and James Ward-Prowse at the heart of everything. Chance after chance came for Southampton, who were unlucky not to have been two up when the ball was laid off to Ward-Prowse, whose effort from range was tipped well wide by Martinez.
The claret and blue side struggled to get on the ball, and when they did, they were wasteful and more often than not sent long balls forward, which were unsuccessful. Once again, there didn’t seem to be an obvious game plan or style to the way at which Villa were trying to play; either that or the opposition simply did not allow us to get going. The press was disjointed and lackluster, allowing for too much space between the lines, and was the primary reason at which Southampton were able to break through so frequently.
As previously mentioned, the tracking back from the Villa wingers was a tremendous issue. Bailey still doesn’t look completely fit, and there was very little desire from either wide players to hunt the ball down and turn over possession. This freed Livramento and Kyle Walker-Peters, who saw a lot of the ball and created many chances. El Ghazi could only stop his man impeding him and was incredibly lucky to remain on the field.
An uninspiring and unimaginative first half at both ends for Villa,and not for the first time this season. It wasn’t the reaction the players or the coach wanted given their current form and league position. Thankfully, they had the chance to recoup and make a difference in the second half, but changes were needed.
And a change is what occurred — in shape. Dean Smith adjusted positions slightly so that there were more numbers in the middle of the park, the area in which the Villans were being overrun in.
The out of form side started well, with a lot more intensity and purpose. Chances were coming thick and fast as Buendia became the main architect in a more recognised role for the Argentine. The number 10 had a couple chances of his own, but only found Alex McCarthy’s welcoming gloves, before Axel Tuanzebe was presented with a sight at goal, but can’t latch onto Leon Bailey’s pinpoint cross. Much better from Dean Smith’s side.
Southampton were forced into a defensive change due to the pressure they were being put under, changing to a five at the back, and it worked well as the game appeared to settle as a result. Jacob Ramsey replaced Marvelous Nakamba, an offensive change that certainly affected the balance of the midfield.
After a quiet few minutes, Southampton found themselves back behind the Villa defense. Tuanzebe was the man to put a stop to the attack, but illegally, after impeding the attacking Saint. There was talk surrounding a possible red card as the centre-back was arguably the last man between the goalscorer Armstrong and Martínez, but it seemed as if Matt Targett may have been in a position to recover.
The resulting free-kick brought about the save of the weekend, as Che Adams met the ball in, and it looked destined for the corner of the net if it wasn’t for the fingertips of Villa’s number one — a terrific save.
Villa were without a doubt the better of the two sides in the second 45, but there was always that danger of a Southampton counter-attack, and there was still nothing really to shout about for the thousands of travelling Villans who made their trip down to St Marys.
Late changes saw Buendía and El Ghazi replaced by Davis and Cameron Archer putting three out-and-out strikers on the field.
This amounted to a poor set of substitutions. Whilst I understand it is a last throw of the dice move to try and get a point out of the game, other players could have been more beneficial and helped carve through the solid Southampton backline. It just doesn’t seem as if the changes were thought out. Instead, it appeared as if Smith simply threw on strikers in hopes of generating an attack. In addition, Buendía looked a bright spark in the second half and should have been the last player removed from the pitch. Frustrating, to say the least.
After a rather unexciting seven minutes of additional time, the game was brought to an end with Southampton winning comfortably. This victory rocketed them up to 12th in the league with Villa sitting worrying low in 15th, on just 10 points after 11 games.
Could these three points lost turn out to be decisive come the end of the season, or can the Midlands side kick-start their season again and climb up the table? The international break certainly came at a crucial time, and gives the club a chance to analyse and process the current performances and situation.
Will Dean Smith still be around come the Brighton game? After leading his team to a fifth successive defeat in the Premier League, his name will be all over the papers for the wrong reasons and is the bookies’ next favourite to be relieved of his duties.
It has been widely discussed over the past few weeks whether or not Smith can take Villa to the ‘next level’. A level at which many teams struggle to get to — European places.
Villa had a semi-successful campaign last time out, finishing 11th, a definite improvement on the 17th. Smith and the players have thrown around the word ‘progression’ quite often, and it seems to be the objective the club strives for with each passing game, or on the broader scale, over a season.
Aston Villa have come a long way since Dean Smith’s arrival, when the side were mid-table in the Championship. Fast forward three years, the Premier League side is signing £30-£40 million players to improve the set up. That said, the club has lost the most games out of anyone this calendar year, and are currently playing very unconvincing football.
The Dean Smith debate, a few days after the Southampton lost, is all about perspective.
Some fans view his tenure on a larger scale, whereby they see the progression Villa have made with him in charge and are happy to see him continue. They believe he is the man that can bring the side out of the current rut and into the European places that all Villa fans dream of hosting at Villa Park.
Others only consider the short term, others who see the five losses in a row, the poor performances and believe an immediate change in managerial role is the answer to the current issues. They think Smith has gone as far as he possibly can, and for Villa to become an established Premier League side once again, someone with more expertise must take his place. That manager will be the difference between finishing in mid-table and obtaining European football.
I sit on the fence. I see positives and negatives from each side, and given I am naturally a very indecisive person, it’s not that surprising that I truly don’t know what the right move is at the moment. I feel as if I, like many Villa fans, have an attachment to Smith because he is a Villan too and wants the best for the club — to see it succeed and get back to where this club belongs.
This can be viewed as ‘unhealthy’ in a footballing sense, but maybe people with that mindset need to be more realistic. Instead of wanting to keep Smith due to their appreciation for what he’s done or mutuality towards the club, they need to think ‘bigger and better’. Maybe they need to dream of a more experienced coach who can get the best out of the quality squad of players Villa have worked hard to bring in.
On the other hand, do the club owe Smith a chance, because of the journey he has taken us on over the past few years? He has built up a great relationship with the core players and no other man can reciprocate that immediately. It would take the players time to adjust to a new coach’s ways and style, and could cost Villa in the games to come as a result.
The biggest issue at the moment is that I haven’t once been convinced by the football Aston Villa have played so far this season, even in wins such as the Everton 3-0, or the away victory at Old Trafford. The Villa have showed glimpses of quality, but there hasn’t been a ‘complete performance’ yet, something often seen in the victories of last year.
I’ve spoken about it many times before, but for me, the team has a lack of identity.
I struggle to see the way in which Dean Smith wants his side to play this year, evidenced by his constant change in lineups. Whilst these changes aren’t always his fault (injuries, covid-related issues, etc), I’m not convinced he knows his side’s best formation or starting eleven, and after nearly a third of the season gone already, that is extremely worrying.
We do miss Jack Grealish, painful as it is to admit. His influence on the side was unquestionable. Smith and the players overrelied on the ex-captain, which is now painfully obvious. Yet the players brought in, who haven’t exactly hit the ground running, will eventually come good. They are quality players with warranted reputations and pricetags.
But time is not on Villa’s side. They need a change in form very, very soon or the club will be embroiled in another relegation scrap. The owners have invested an incredible sum of money into the club, and if they don’t see something shift very soon, they are bound to act.
I don’t know what is best for the club, but I have trust in the people in power to do what is right, whatever that means for Smith. And whatever happens, we will all head to Villa Park (in person or in spirit) for the next game to support the boys, because it’s our duty and Villa are in our blood.