Sam Tighe previews Saturday's visit of Aston Villa to Southampton in his latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.
The games keep coming.
Fresh off a disappointing result in midweek for each, Southampton and Aston Villa meet at St Mary’s on Saturday and both will look to earn three points that take them back to within touching distance of the Premier League’s top six.
Here are the three keys to Saints getting back on track and, in doing so, completing the double over Villa this term.
Measure the press
Southampton’s pressing game may have been tempered a little – a truncated pre-season, a game every four days and a mounting injury list being the prime factors behind that – but they still rank in the top five for pressing intensity in the Premier League.
They allow an average of just 10 passes per defensive action (PPDA) – Leeds United (9) are the most intense, with Liverpool (9.8) just below. At times this season the ferocity of Saints’ playing style has scared and overwhelmed opponents, leading to goal blitzes and great results.
But Villa may prove a different story. They’ve looked their best when able to play a little more directly and relish the chance to break an opponent’s press then pass in behind.
They’re looking for Ollie Watkins running down the sides of the centre-backs; his movement is good, his timing is excellent, and he battles endlessly for loose balls, winning more than you’d assume possible given his slight frame. He gave Burnley a tougher time than they’ve had in months on Wednesday.
Players like Watkins are huge boons when facing high-pressure opponents, and Saints must be wary of how hard they press given a) Villa may even look to encourage it, and b) the intense run of games they’re on.
There may well come a time when a patented Jan Bednarek last-ditch block or tackle is needed, though.
The Jack Grealish problem
It’s easier said than done. In fact, it might be as tough a task as handling Kevin De Bruyne at this stage, as Grealish represents a perplexing and unique problem to every opposing manager who comes up against him.
He has been the most creative player in the division so far this season, producing a whopping 121 shot-creating actions in 18 starts. His assist tally of eight is good, but should be higher; and he scored his sixth league goal of the campaign in midweek.
At one stage, he picked up the ball deep in his own half, dribbled past three on the left touchline, then burst past two more only to see his shot saved. It was Heung-Min Son’s Puskas Award-winning goal recreated – except for the finish.
He’ll likely start on the left flank, but his role is a true free one; he’s allowed to drift and dribble and impact where he likes. His connection with former Saint Matt Targett is strong, giving Villa some left-sided bias in attack, but when he drifts he makes other areas dangerous too.
The importance of striking first
Villa are yet to win a game in the Premier League this season in which they did not score first, and up until Wednesday night, they’d won every single game they had scored first in.
Whether or not the defeat to Burnley shakes their spirit, that pattern is astonishingly clear: the scorer of the first goal in a game involving Villa typically goes on to win it.
Fortunately, striking first hasn’t been something Southampton have struggled with. Danny Ings and Stuart Armstrong have struck in the second and third minutes of games respectively of late, while wins against Burnley, Newcastle United and, fittingly, Villa, have all come thanks in part to early goals.
No prizes for guessing what Ralph Hasenhüttl’s message out of the blocks will be.