After last weekend’s gut punch of a defeat at home to Spurs, and the increasingly tenuous nature by which we hold on to our spot in 17th, this weekend’s trip to the South Coast to take on Southampton takes on greater significance – although at this stage of the season every game is of significance.
There were notable improvements in a few aspects of our game against Spurs; we were assertive, wanted to play on the front foot and attack, and yet some all too familiar weaknesses and defensive lapses showcased themselves again and we were once again, left ruing another game with no points that perhaps deserved better.
The manner of the defeat was very hard one to take, but we can’t afford to dwell on it. We need to build on the positive aspects of the performance if we are going to gain the much needed victory against a team who – up until a couple of months ago – were in the relegation scrap with us.
Coming into another big fixture for Villa, we sought the inside information on the Saints from Sam Tighe (@stighefootball):
1. Since the teams last met just before Christmas, Southampton’s season has taken an impressive upturn. What has been the main catalyst for that change in fortunes? Was it a case of things finally clicking as a team or was it a change of tactics/personnel that instigated it?
There was a bout of severe introspection at Southampton during the November international break. From what I can gather, some truths were told, some realities were made clear, and the club pulled together to realign their performances so that they more closely resembled Ralph Hasenhüttl’s style.
They’d been drifting, playing passively, inviting pressure and not attacking with any gusto—all things that stand the antithesis of Hasenhuttl’s high-energy, high-press, bold-and-brave style.
They came flying out of the November break with a brilliant performance against Arsenal which should have netted them 3 points. A late goal forced a concession, but the belief was back—and haven’t looked back since.
2. A big part of Southampton’s season has been the goalscoring form of Danny Ings. He seems to be a very unselfish, team focused player, so just how important is he to the way they play?
Hasenhüttl preaches a high pressing game that starts with – and includes – a front two. Any striker that plays for him has to put in a serious shift, which is why he keeps four in the squad.
To say goals are a secondary concern for forwards is wrong, but the balance of importance between carrying out “against the ball” instructions (as Ralph calls them) and goalscoring is more level than at most clubs. He doesn’t hesitate to play Shane Long, whose goalscoring record isn’t great; Che Adams hasn’t scored since signing; and Michael Obafemi has 2 in 18 months.
Ings’ form in front of goal has been sensational, but Hasenhüttl probably admires his hard yards and linkup play just as much as his finessed finishes.
3. Given the issues faced in the first half of the season, do you think Ralph Hasenhüttl was ever under pressure from Saints fans, or were they always confident he could turn the fortunes around as he appears to have done?
There was probably a split, but most of the fans I spoke to were more tempted to back Hasenhüttl than sack him. If you proffered the subject of the manager getting the chop, you’d be met with a grimace or a tightening of the jaw.
They’d watched first-hand the minor miracles Ralph had worked in saving them the season before, and he’s such an engaging personality and likeable figure, it takes a lot to turn on someone like that.
The aftermath of the 9-0 against Leicester was, to be honest, mostly laid at the players’ feet—not Ralph’s. Shortly after that game a Telegraph article landed from the ever-reliable Jeremy Wilson saying the board were backing the manager and demanding the players buck up. Again, more nods and murmurs of approval on the whole.
Whether there was a confidence that he WOULD turn it around, I can’t be sure. I do think there was an acceptance that Hasenhüttl was still an excellent manager, probably plying his trade below his perceived level, and that that’s not someone you give up on in October.
4. In general, Southampton have seemed a stronger team away from home than at St. Mary’s. Is this just due to the way they play being better suited to a more counter attacking style? Why have Southampton struggled a little more at home?
Southampton haven’t been great at home at all. Even placing aside the 9-0, the stats don’t look great. Worst record in the division on home soil (11 points), worst goal difference at home (-16).
An exact reason as to why is hard to pinpoint. There’s definitely merit in the suggestion that their game is more suited to playing away, and that when they are presented with a deeper defensive block to break down, the intricacy isn’t perhaps there. They become a little reliant on Nathan Redmond magic (who is injured) and James Ward-Prowse’s set piece deliveries.
There’s also an argument that an at-times tetchy home crowd don’t help. This is a team who have struggled against relegation for several straight seasons now, and as Villa fans and Villa Park can attest to, this can make for some groans, moans and worries. The atmosphere isn’t always conducive to breathing confidence into the side—even if that’s never the real intention.
5. How do you see Southampton setting up on Saturday? And what do you think will be the strengths that Villa should be mindful of?
4-4-2 formation, high defensive line, high energy play, hard work off the ball and direct passes from line to line when in possession, trying to work it forward fast.
Ward-Prowse’s free-kicks and corners are sensational, and his long-range shooting is good too. Redmond is out, which is a blessing for Villa as he’s been incredible this calendar year, and Boufal limped off against Burnley. Moussa Djenepo may stand in and he’s excellent too, it’s only fitness issues that have prevented him gaining some rhythm this term.
6. What weaknesses can Villa try and exploit in Southampton’s game?
Like Villa, Saints don’t play the cleanest defensive game. Individual errors crop up and there are times when poor clearances create danger for themselves. As mentioned, the home crowd can get tetchy, and the more nervous they get, the more the home side feel it.
7. Our last meeting kickstarted Southampton’s recent change in fortunes with an impressive win. How do see this game going?
Southampton feel a stronger overall outfit and are in a much more confident mood. They’ve lost their last three but the performances are good, and those results will turn again soon.
That said, it’s tough to shake the feeling this might be another home game that ends in disappointment for them. For whatever reason, they just can’t string it together at St. Mary’s on a consistent basis.
I’ll take the coward’s way out. 2-2 draw.
Southampton have shown that form can be changed by tweeking a few things and working on their strengths that a team can change their fortunes. It’s the kind of change of fortunes that we could really do with ourselves at this stage. The Saints turnaround was kickstarted by a ruthless performance in the reverse fixture in December, and it would be nice if we could gain some revenge by turning a corner on their patch.
This match pits the worst home record against the second worst away record, so something’s got to give. Southampton have become a tough side to play against in recent months, and we will have to work very hard to gain the victory we need, and whilst our attacking options can cause Southampton’s shaky defence problems, we simply have to start defending better ourselves to start accruing more wins and draws. Especially when playing against Southampton’s energetic play and goalscoring prowess of Danny Ings.
If we can keep working hard, and stay focused and switched on for 90 minutes then we can get the results we need, including this weekend, but we have to cut out the naïve individual errors, start controlling the tempo of games better and begin dictating matches more. If we can do those things then we can start climbing this table, but time is running out for us to learn these lessons. Saturday on the South Coast would be a perfect time for these ideas to click into place. Here’s hoping for the much needed three points.
By Jamie Yapp