Guest columnist Sam Tighe assesses Southampton's next opponents, Aston Villa, in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Sunday sees Southampton travel to a very familiar and happy hunting ground in the form of Villa Park.
Saints haven’t lost in B6 since 2004, winning three and drawing two of the five games played there since; a repeat success in either form this weekend will extend their current unbeaten run and continue an excellent start to the campaign.
It’ll be tough, though. Villa’s own fast start has seen them win four of their first five games and accrue 12 points. They have the best goals against record in the league despite losing 3-0 to Leeds United on Friday – a game which vanquished the last remaining perfect record in the Premier League.
Here are the three keys to defeating the Villans.
Stop Jack Grealish
Grealish has blossomed into quite the player. A great post-lockdown period and hot start to this campaign have seen him rewarded with England caps, while he’s already on three goals and three assists in five league games this term.
Operating off the left flank but with license to drift pretty much anywhere he wants, he ranks in the top 10 this season for completed dribbles (3.5 per game) and shot-creating actions (25). He’s tormented almost every right-back he’s come across so far, meaning Kyle Walker-Peters is in for a stern examination.
Villa have diversified their attack this season in an attempt to rebalance and take the onus off Grealish, but they still naturally look for him at almost every opportunity: when playing out from the back, when clearing their lines, when entering the final third and when near the opponent’s box.
Attention on him, at all times, is critical.
Pressing and physicality
Last season, it felt like if you could keep Grealish quiet you could keep Villa at arm’s length, but a couple of key summer signings have changed that.
With Ross Barkley now powering through the middle in claret and blue – and the equally robust John McGinn back to full fitness too – there’s a physical edge to this team in midfield that has left a few teams shell-shocked over the last two months – Liverpool being the prime example of that.
Friday’s loss to Leeds was intriguing in light of this; Marcelo Bielsa’s men were in incredible, precise form on the ball, but also outmatched Villa in midfield both physically and tactically. It was the first time it had happened this season.
Their players won the majority of their 1v1 duels and sliced through Villa in the middle. More importantly, they baited a Villa press that wasn’t up to scratch in order to create space to drive into, or for the forwards to drop into.
This won’t have escaped Ralph Hasenhüttl’s attention and he’ll surely be considering a similar approach. This Saints team can relish a bustling midfield ground like Leeds do, and they’re neat enough to play through the press too.
Furthermore, Villa have looked extremely solid when stacking up the defensive lines deep. Douglas Luiz is a superb holding midfielder and the entire defensive line have seriously bucked up since June. You probably don’t want to engage them deep; you want to coax them up and play through them.
Neither Villa or Southampton have conceded a single goal from set-pieces so far this season.
It’s an area both sides have markedly improved on compared to last term, where Saints let in 11 and Villa a whopping 15. The latter tally was the joint third worst in the league and threatened to send them down until the pandemic gave them time to correct their issues.
They didn’t just tighten up during that period, though; they became a real threat from dead-balls at the other end too. In Grealish, McGinn, Barkley and Matt Targett they have strong set-piece takers on either foot, and they’ve already scored four set-piece goals from five games in 2020/21 thanks to some newly co-ordinated tactics.
A particularly successful routine has seen Tyrone Mings dart to the near post and flick the ball onward, often finding his central defensive partner Ezri Konsa at the far post. It’ll put Saints’ new-found solidity from set-pieces right to the test and task the likes of Jannik Vestergaard – who has been in dominant form – with a tough afternoon’s work.