After West Ham piled the misery on Villa last time out, Dean Smith’s men had a chance to get their season back on track as they travelled to Hampshire for a challenging fixture against Southampton.
Whilst the manager had perhaps stretched the truth slightly to stick up for his players in his analysis of only “one really bad 45 minutes” in the four game losing streak, Friday marked a real chance to put things right.
With increasing speculation over Smith’s position a strong performance was needed, although injuries and illness once more blighted the B6 side. There was a real sense of disappointment as Danny Ings and Douglas Luiz both missed out once again, whilst Morgan Sanson, who is quickly becoming Villa’s answer to Fresh Meat’s “Paul Lamb the Invisible Man” was sidelined with COVID-19 related complications.
Here’s how the two sides lined up:
Villa recalled central defensive duo Axel Tuanzebe and Tyrone Mings, who both started last weeks’ game from the bench, whilst Anwar El Ghazi came in for Jacob Ramsey, who was not fit enough to start after a knock last time out.
The hosts brought former Celtic man Stuart Armstrong into the side after Nathan Redmond was ruled out, and Ralph Hasenhüttl was pleased to have Chelsea loanee Armando Broja back amongst the substitutes.
Whilst everyone has their own opinion on what has been going wrong at Villa in recent weeks, a common denominator which many have pointed out is the slow starts from the team, leaving much work to be done in the second halves of matches. Dean Smith said as much in his post-match musings.
With that identified then, it is fair to say the evening could not have got off to a more disastrous start. Adam Armstrong, who has not quite hit the heights since his big move from Blackburn in the summer, latched onto a swirling ball which ricocheted off Matty Cash and lashed in a stunning finish within three minutes.
The goal just about summed up how things are going for the West Midlands side at the moment. It was a beautiful strike, of course, but a combination of the huge slice of luck that saw the ball bounce favourably for Saints off both James Ward-Prowseand Matty Cash and the lapse in concentration from Villa’s defence to allow Armstrong to find himself in shooting range was the absolute hallmark of a team in a rut.
When you’re a side in form, the ball bounces differently, or you have the wherewithal to put the ball into row z, or an out-of-form striker does not hit an exquisite finish past a world class goalkeeper. But when a side are doubting themselves to the level some of our players are right now, you do not earn that bit of luck.
So after all the talk pre-match on an improved opening segment, the Villa boys found themselves with it all to do once again. With fans hoping the team could calm things down and find their way back into the game, Southampton and their supporters sensed blood and went for the kill against a fragile Aston Villa side.
Southampton’s full backs bombarded Villa, whilst James Ward-Prowse, just months after being linked heavily with the club, troubled the away side with his passing range, late runs and of course, pinpoint set-pieces. Stuart Armstrong fluffed his lines as he met one such corner, turning the ball horribly high and wide after finding space in the penalty area.
Even though Austin MacPhee has been the recipient of much praise for the team’s increasing output from attacking set-pieces, questions still remain over the basics defensively. Whilst there will have been a good reason for the passing round of a note before one such Saints dead-ball situation, it did not look particularly professional to the supporters in the ground or at home.
A poor first half could have got a whole lot worse as El Ghazi twice walked a red card tightrope within a matter of minutes. The winger was not pleased with his first yellow, a tackle no worse than misdemeanours for which Targett, Bednarek and Romeu did not receive bookings, but once receiving a card, the number 21 should have shown far more restraint.
Instead of staying in the referee’s good books and avoiding confrontation, the wideman brought down Tino Livramento in a borderline yellow card tackle and then crumpled in the box before a Southampton player even attempted a challenge just minutes later. Both times he escaped punishment. Whilst the Villans were on the end of some rotten luck last week, this time out they were still in the game at the break thanks to some extremely lenient refereeing late in the half.
With the score at 1-0, it seemed that Dean Smith read the riot act to his side, as the travelling team came out with an intensity and verve that has not been seen since the pre-collapse second half against Wolves.
The fortunate El Ghazi looked very dangerous and twice went close, whilst Emi Buendía picked up some brilliant positions as Villa swarmed their hosts. The Villans then found themselves very unlucky not to receive what looked like a stonewall penalty as persistent fouler Oriol Romeu grabbed a handful of Tyrone Mings’ shirt and prevented the England international from jumping to meet a corner. The La Masia graduate then joined El Ghazi in living a charmed life as he continued to give away free-kicks once he had received a card.
For all Villa’s efforts in the second half, they did not have the imagination or indeed that aforementioned little bit of luck which evades teams in the position we currently are, to break down a Southampton defence who, whilst improving, still looked there to be got at.
Dean Smith has made so many brilliant decisions and tweaks throughout his Villa career, but the way in which he summoned his forwards from the bench late on to replace wingers and midfielders smacked of desperation. A roll of the dice, which can pay off, but largely leads to disjointed play with a lopsided team unable to feed the ball to the strikers, as was the case on Friday as Southampton got over the line.
If Villa deserved a draw from the game based on the reinvigorated second half performance it would have been only just. There has still been fleeting evidence of fight in the team in recent weeks, and Villa fans are desperate for Dean Smith to turn it around, but Friday night felt like maybe this wonderful journey has just about run it’s natural course.
Over the coming days and weeks, difficult conversations will take place behind the scenes at the club, but no matter what the outcome is, Villa fans will stay behind the team through thick and thin, that I know for sure.