Premier League 2020/21: Aston Villa vs Southampton – tactical analysis
Aston Villa fought for the survival in the Premier League during project restart and salvaged themselves with a mere difference of one point from the relegated Watford and Bournemouth. But who would have thought that they would start the new campaign with four wins out of the five games?
A lot of credit goes to their recruitment this season and of course to Dean Smith for keeping up the morale since the dramatic end of last season. This season, their only loss in the competition came against Leeds which was last week. Now, they hosted Southampton for their sixth game in the Premier League looking to get back to the winning ways but got disappointed in a 3-4 defeat.
Southampton have reestablished themselves after losing the first three games in all competitions. A comeback to draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and the 2-0 win against Everton to end their unbeaten run in the Premier League so far reflects upon their massive improvement and work in recent days. Ralph Hasenhüttl has turned the Saints into a fierce high pressing team.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine the tactics and game plan of Southampton and Aston Villa. The following analysis will determine how the events of the match unfolded.
Dean Smith made just one change from his 3-0 defeat against Leeds United. Emiliano Martínez played between the sticks and in front of him Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings and Matt Targett formed the back four. Douglas Luiz, John McGinn and Ross Barkley played in the midfield three. Bertrand Traoré started his first league match along with Jack Grealish and Ollie Watkins upfront. He was replaced by Mahmoud Trézéguet due to an injury in the 29th minute. Ahmed El Mohamady was the second substitute who came in for Cash.
Southampton started in their preferred 4-4-2 and made just one change from their 2-0 win against Everton. Alex McCarthy took charge of the goal and was guarded by the back four of Kyle Walker-Peters, Jan Bednarek, Jannik Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand. Stuart Armstrong, James Ward-Prowse, Oriol Romeu and Theo Walcott played in the midfield. Che Adams accompanied Danny Ings up front. Jack Stephens, Ibrahima Diallo and Shane Long came in for Bednarek, Bertrand and Ings respectively. They were all replaced due to injuries.
Aston Villa’s gameplan
The Villans played in a 4-3-3 during the build-up in the first half. Their shape offered minimal movement and dynamism to progress the ball. Southampton followed their usual set-up of a hexagon in front of their backline when they were out of possession. The primary function of such a shape is to offer space in the centre, this is perhaps a trap for the opposition. Aston Villa wary of this trap attempted progressing the ball from the flanks. Therefore Luiz was only used when he dropped deeper between the two centre-backs and Barkley and McGinn had a minimum role in helping their team.
Martínez played maximum passes to Mings as he was tasked to launch the ball long. Mings played 14 long passes in the match with seven being accurate. The initial idea was to release Watkins down the channel but he was well watched by Southampton’s centre-back pair. Luiz was left open in the centre as a bait pass while McGinn and Barkley were monitored by Romeu and Ward-Prowse. They were well-coached to know when they had to break the shape and go back to help the back-line. As Ming’s attempted the long pass, Romeu and Ward-Prowse would rush back to win the second ball or pick up the loose balls to retain possession before McGinn and Barkley.
The front six forming the Hexagon followed a zonal press. Therefore, if the Villa fullbacks surged higher beyond their shape, Walcott and Armstrong tracked them back when the ball was played to them. Because of which Southampton full-backs could hold the defence line against the three Villa forwards.
Aston Villa could barely progress the ball leading to an attack in the first half. When they managed to get the ball in the opposition’s half, Southampton overloaded the ball-side corridor and won the possession with numerical superiority. The midfield line especially worked hard to drift near the ball. Walcott and Armstrong were assisted by both Romeu and Ward-Prowse to deal with Villa’s attack.
The farside winger would move to the half-space if not centre to maintain compactness. The ball-side forward would also drop to provide extra protection to the team and cut-off the back pass option. Therefore, due to the inapt ball progression and suffocated attack from the wings, Villa struggled to create substantial chances in the first half. They had zero shots on target in the first 45 of the match.
Dean Smith made one key change to solve both the issues of ball progression and creating chances. He moved Barkley as the attacking-midfielder and changed the formation to 4-2-3-1 from 4-3-3. The Lions had a double pivot to progress the ball from the centre. They used Barkley as the third man to redirect the play quickly which made sure that Southampton didn’t have enough time to overload the ball-side. Barkley’s advanced role also helped in winning the second ball from long passes as he was always behind Southampton’s centre-midfielders. His redistribution was important to get early crosses inside the box to attack.
In the final thirt, Villa put up a brave front against Southampton. Out of the 10 shots on target, eight came in the last 30. In order to deal with the defensive overload, Smith pushed his men on the ball side too. Targett played a more advanced role in the second half and the substitution of El Mohamady was a vital one to reinforce the offensive threat. Barkley’s attacking midfield position helped him maneuver from side to side easily.
The Lions targetted the left flank specifically to create chances. Watkins supported from the left half-space or he interchanged positions with Grealish. Mings too was encouraged to push further up on the left side. Establishing numerical equality was not enough, Villa also decoded the defensive principles of Southampton to exploit them even further.
Despite defending in numbers on the wide areas, Southampton players always focused and applied pressure on the player on the ball. The inadvertently neglected the options around them and offered them too much space. Villa players with their composure to play out of pressure were able to find these options in space. When the ball moved to McGinn in the left half-space, he was immediately surrounded by three Southampton players. McGinn released the ball quickly to Grealish who had abundant space to drive into and pick a cross towards Mings who scored the first goal was Aston Villa.
The Lions put 22 of their 25 crosses in the second half by understanding and tactically breaking Southampton’s defensive strategy. Targett and Grealish supplied 12 crosses collectively and most of them aimed at the far post. Trézéguet was on the receiving end of those balls and he was extremely unfortunate to not see his name on the scoresheet. He had three shots on target from those crosses but they were twice saved by McCarthy’s brilliant reflexes and a brave block by Vestergaard in the six-yard-box.
Besides the crosses, Aston Villa’s quick ball circulation was crucial in the turnaround. The quick switch from Luiz to Grealish put Walker-Peters in a 2v1 situation against Grealish and Targett. The English winger could cut inside and catch McCarthy off guard to beat him at the near post from long range. However, the third goal came too late to give Villa hope for an equaliser.
The Saints played in a 4-2-2-2 to 2-2-2-4 depending on the level of the ball on the field. The width was essentially provided by the full-backs while the rest of the eight players converged centrally in pairs. Walcott and Armstong inverted behind the forwards to play in the half-spaces and central corridor. The entire set-up eased the progression from the centre of the pitch. 88% of their attacking danger level in this match came from the central corridor. The shape was also useful in creating multiple levels and horizontal lines of players which puts the opposition in jeopardy.
Aston Villa defended in a 4-5-1 against Southampton and applied negligible press at the start. Southampton’s inverted wingers couldn’t be easily marked by Villa’s fullbacks and therefore McGinn and Barkley had to screen the angle to ensure safety. The higher positioning of Southampton’s fullbacks were relatively higher up the pitch and had to be under the watch of Villa wingers. Therefore Villa’s midfield line was rather passive in the press and invited Southampton to their half without much trouble.
When Aston Villa did try to press, it was an uncoordinated and futile attempt at it. Trézéguet’s pressing movement was from inside to outside which meant the ball was to be forced in the wider areas. However, McGinn was glued to Romeu protecting the central channel and Cash was rightly sceptical of leaving his back-line against two forwards and two inverted wingers. Bertrand was an easy and obvious solution for Vestergaard for progression who was a free man in the process. Villa’s change to 4-2-3-1 didn’t just help them offensively but improved their pressing system as well. They were then able to force long balls with their increased intensity and desire to win the ball back.
The Saints could progress the ball in the first two phases of build-up without much hindrance. Villa’s midfield and defence line left a huge hole between them for the inverted wingers to strategically sit it. Either Adams or Ings would also drop in while the other along with the full-backs held Aston Villa’s line deep. The wingers positioned themselves between the lines and in the passing channels to a passing outlet in the centre. With just one pass, Southampton was able to bypass the entire midfield of Aston Villa. Walcott was fouled after receiving a pass from Vestergaard through the channel. Ward-Prowse scored a goal from that free-kick. On another occasion, Adams received the ball between the lines and he turned to play it into Ings’ path. He chipped it over the goalkeeper but it was called offside.
Southampton players’ off the ball movement was impeccable in this match. When Walker-Peters won the ball in his own half, Ward-Prowse made an outfield run to provide himself as a passing option. Concurrently, Armstrong made an infield run in the open space. The counter-movements helped them advance the ball through Villa’s pressing. This led to the fourth and only open-play goal for Southampton.
Southampton displayed incredible dynamism throughout the match. The wingers made infield runs while the forwards ran outfield to stretch the opposition and exploit the space behind Villa full-backs and the Saints fullbacks also made underlapping runs to make Villa’s task extremely difficult. Southampton’s reluctance in creating chances from the wide areas can be easily stated as they attempted only one cross in the game. They scored four goals from four shots on target which, if seen under the positive light says how clinical they were.
A set-piece show
The game saw an immense 59:25 minutes of dead time. Other than the two injuries, the only reason for this was the numerous set-pieces. It had 53 throw-ins, 12 corners, 9 free-kicks and one penalty in total. Five out of the seven goals were a result of these set-pieces directly or indirectly.
Aston Villa had Barkley on the duty for delivering set-pieces. He tried multiple variants to keep the Saints guessing. In the 23rd minute, Traoré disjoints from the huddle to run away from the goal. His blindside run helped him stay unmarked and Barkley played a ground ball to him. The shot went wide but it was a great utilisation of a left-footed player to get a reverse shot from the free-kick.
During corners, Aston Villa usually looked for short option. They would use combination play until the player is free to cross from a good angle. The first goal of Aston Villa came from a sequence of play after a short corner.
Southampton scored in the third minute of the game from a corner but was disallowed by VAR on the basis of offside. This showed early signs from Southampton about the threat they possessed in set-pieces. Villa applied a combination of the zonal and man-marking system to defend set-pieces. However, Vestergaard and McGinn are a total mismatch for man-marking. Vestergaard is seen clearly indicating Ward-Prowse where he wants the ball. As the ball was played he stutters his run to confuse McGinn and then leaps from his back to score the first goal.
The birthday boy rose to the occasion and scored two precise goals from direct free-kicks. Ward-Prowse is one of the finest set-piece takers in the league right now. He broke the record of Matt Le Tisser by scoring from the most free-kicks for them. His sublime quality of curling the ball over the wall to find the back of the net is unmatched.
The match ended to be a seven-goal thriller. Southampton played convincing football and deserved their 4-0 lead by the 60th minute of the game. They face Newcastle next week and will try to extend their five games unbeaten runs. The Villans put up a great fight against the Saints after adopting the tactical changes. The players showed great awareness to adapt to the situation and make the most of it. Next up they go to Emirates to face Arsenal.