Preview – Aston Villa’s ‘Reverse Gear’ Receives Praise from Saints Boss Ralph Hasenhüttl

By Dean Gregory

Aston Villa vs Southampton

Last week, Aston Villa’s season hit its first bump with a loss against Leeds. They will hope to put that behind them when they welcome Southampton next to Villa Park.

Southampton are a team who have had a similarly good start to the season and have top four form since Project Restart last season. A win the Saints would see them leapfrog Villa, and leave their hosts sliding towards mid-table.

League Form

Aston Villa – W W W W L

Southampton – L W W D W

Manager Quotes

Dean Smith on improvement

“I feel we’ve improved a hell of a lot. We were awful when we went to Southampton. The goals changed the game when we played them at Villa Park last season, plus the fact that John McGinn limped off after ten minutes.

“They will expect to face a different Villa team this season. We’ll also be expecting a different team because they’ve also improved a lot since last season.

“I want a good start from the players, I want them to play with high energy.”

Ralph Hasenhüttl on Aston Villa 

“[Aston Villa 7-2 Liverpool] was amazing, an amazing game. Nearly every shot was a goal. It’s one thing to get those chances, and it’s another to score in that moment. To kill a team like Liverpool was amazing.

“For me, it’s not a coincidence. They did a good job there. They’re closing better. They’re reverse gear is definitely better, they’re more aggressive. You only have so much time to attack the space – it’s not open for long. In transition, you see their biggest quality. They have players who can carry the ball, and who can speed up the game.

“We’ll have to have a good counter press and a good rest defensively, otherwise it’s very difficult against this opponent. I think every part of our game must be at the highest possible level, otherwise it will be not possible to win there.”

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Tactical Analysis

Southampton have started the season using a classic flat 4-4-2 formation with Danny Ings and Che Adams up front, James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu in midfield with Jannik Vestergaard partnering Jan Bednarek in defense.

They are typically a patient team who like to hold onto the ball, seeing 53.1% of possession across the season so far. They manage a pass success rate of 78.4% – this is because they generally like to maintain possession with short passes, but will try to hit the ball long whenever they are pinned back by their opponents, or when their opponents are coaxed out of their defensive third. 11% of all passes they play are long, showing this is a strategy that is presented fairly often.

For the most part, Southampton like to stay narrow and pack the middle of the pitch, with the width being provided mainly by the fullbacks who push out wide and hug the touchline when the team are in possession. 44% of their attacks are eventually made down their left flank where Ryan Bertrand, Oriol Romeu and Danny Ings combine. A strong defensive presence on the right in particular is needed when defending against them.

They are good in front of goal, managing 10 goals from 7.43 xG so far. Eight of their goals have come from open play via 46 shots, with an average of 0.11 xG per shot. This shows they take opportunities when they come, even if they are only half chances.

They have conceded nine goals from a total xGA of 6.53. All nine have come from open play, from 5.61 xGA. This suggests that while they are organised and competent at defending set pieces of all kinds, their defense is seriously underperforming in open play. In particular, WhoScored lists defending against counter attacks and skillful players as glaring weaknesses.

Southampton have established themselves as a solid Premier League side over the years and while they do have their moments of weakness, they are often a thorn in the side of even the strongest teams in the league. They exist on a spectrum of extremes; if they are up for it, this will be one of the toughest fixtures for Villa. However if they are not, Villa could win at a canter.

One to Watch

Embed from Getty Images

Three things are certain in life: death, taxes and Danny Ings scoring a goal. Ings has established himself as one of the most potent strikers in the league during his time at Southampton, and has started the new season in good form. He has scored four goals so far from 2.34 xG, and has added two assists from 0.35 xGA. He takes 2.2 shots per game.

His only concern in this team is to shoot on sight as the final piece of the attacking puzzle – his contributions elsewhere are minimal, with almost no defensive work at all and a pass success of just 60.7%. This means if the ball ever finds him in an advanced position, Southampton are doing everything right or the opposition are doing everything wrong.

Memory Match

Aston Villa 2-0 Southampton – 14-08-2004

Darius Vassell and Carlton Cole scored in the first half to give Villa the last three points they earned at home in this fixture.

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How it could play out

Villa have tasted defeat for the first time this season in a match they never really got a foothold in. It was the first time they have conceded first so far in the league, and unfortunately their heads seemed to drop after this happened. The question they need to answer now is, how will they bounce back from this?

This does not diminish the scintillating start to the season they have had of course; losing is a part of the game, and anybody who genuinely didn’t see it coming eventually was just plain wrong. It has happened now, and perhaps happening sooner rather than later will keep the players grounded and stop them getting carried away with the good times.

Southampton provide an interesting opportunity to right the ship. They can be badly exposed at times, as evidenced by the 9-0 demolition they suffered at the hands of Leicester last season. However they can be brilliant at times too, such as against Everton in the last match. Everton have started the season excellently themselves, so to beat them 2-0 in convincing fashion shows they are a hard team to face.

The key for Villa is that suspect defense – their inability to handle sustained pressure from open play should be exploited. Villa’s mobile attacking unit of Watkins, Grealish, Trezeguet/Traore and Barkley has been unpredictable and has carved out a lot of chances for the team so far, when they have clicked. If they are all up for it this time, Southampton will be there for the taking.

Hopefully the slight niggle that Barkley has mentioned has subsided by now. Against Leeds he seemed off the pace and nowhere near his best and it showed. He needs to be on it this time, as Southampton’s midfield of Armstrong, Ward-Prowse, Romeu and Djenepo are strong and capable of overrunning the middle. Villa’s own trio of Barkley, McGinn and Luiz are as good as any midfield in the league on their day, and they will need to all pull together if they are to win this game.

Two teams who have started the season well who will both have great rewards to reap if they win here – Villa could potentially return to second place, while Southampton could gatecrash the top six. It could be a fun one.


Aston Villa 3-2 Southampton

Villa are still worth backing as the winners here, but Southampton could make this a thriller. Both teams are capable of being great on the front foot, but Villa’s much improved defense should be enough to see them through. One thing is almost certain; they will be tested.