Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews Southampton's return to St Mary's Stadium and the visit of Aston Villa in the Premier League.
If there’s a club in the Premier League that can match Southampton (and Arsenal) for high spirits right now, it’s probably Villa. They feel like a team in a good place and are steadily climbing the Premier League table.
Like Saints, they switched managers just before the World Cup, hiring Unai Emery from Villarreal, and it’s had quite the effect at Villa Park: they’ve taken 13 points from their last six games, including wins over Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
They’ve scored in every game Emery has presided over and competed hard in each one too, with a new tactical blueprint so far proving a recipe for success.
What is Villa’s tactical identity under Emery?
First and foremost, Emery’s Villa have been defensively solid. They line up in a 4-4-2 formation that demands plenty of defensive work rate from the wingers, while the centre-backs are protected by a responsible midfield pivot of Boubacar Kamara and Douglas Luiz.
In games against extremely possession-dominant sides, like Spurs and United, the wingers tracked the opposing full-backs all the way back while their own full-backs tucked into a narrow position, creating a 6-2-2 look. It was near-impossible to break down.
To suggest they pride themselves on clean sheets would be an understatement; Tyrone Mings recently admitted they’re so focused on that side of the game, they’re even celebrating offside calls.
On the ball, they play short from the goalkeeper and circulate it around the backline, attempting to bait an opponent’s press and draw the defensive line up onto the halfway line, which creates space in behind.
From there, they’ll try to feed it into Kamara, who in turn will try to release a speedy forward in behind – typically either Ollie Watkins or Leon Bailey.
Where can Southampton find joy against this Villa side?
If Saints opt for a pressing strategy, it will need to be perfectly executed. Villa have drawn several opponents onto them and then played straight through them of late (Leeds United being a prime example), so it comes with risk attached.
There’s a potential plus matchup for Southampton on the left flank; if Samuel Edozie can emulate parts of Wilfried Gnonto’s twisting, turning performance from last weekend, 38-year-old right-back Ashley Young could be in for another stern examination.
The battle between those two was quite the sight, with Young using every trick in the book (in addition to showing remarkable fitness and mobility for his age) to keep Gnonto at bay for as long as possible.
On the other flank, Álex Moreno made an abrupt debut off the bench last weekend and struggled to immediately match the rhythm and pace of the Premier League. He’s one week wiser now but may still struggle at some points.
Lastly, you can’t even consider a Southampton attacking move right now without envisioning James Ward-Prowse at the heart of it, whose free-kick radar is as strong as ever.
Predicted XI (4-4-2): Martínez; Young, Konsa, Mings, Moreno; Ramsey, Kamara, Luiz, Buendía; Watkins, Bailey.
- Watkins and Digne came off injured last weekend, but Emery is optimistic the former will be fit for the trip down south
- Jhon Durán has arrived this week from Chicago Fire in the MLS, and could be in line to make his debut
- Moreno is a new arrival at left-back; he’s still adjusting to Premier League life
- Kamara, back to full fitness, has been Villa’s star man through the Emery reign