Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe highlights where Southampton's trip to Aston Villa will be won and lost when the two clubs go head to head at Villa Park in the Premier League on Saturday...
This weekend sees Southampton travel to the Midlands to take on Aston Villa, a team who are locked on the exact same number of points (15) as Saints.
Victory would launch the visitors out of the bottom three just as the Christmas period rolls around.
Villa arrested a slump in results on Tuesday as they beat Liverpool 5-0 in the Carabao Cup quarter-final – though, before you check your eyesight, it was a team made up of Under-23 players as the main squad had travelled to Qatar to play in the Club World Cup.
It will see Dean Smith’s men enter this contest with refreshed confidence, though, making it all the more important that Saints key in on their weaknesses and exploit them in the same way others have recently.
Aston Villa have conceded nine set-piece goals in the Premier League this season. That’s the most in the division, and it accounts for close to a third of their total goals conceded.
Corners have been a particular problem, though really it’s any kind of whipped ball into the box – first or second phase – that the defence have had issues with.
Tyrone Mings is injured, but even with his giant frame in the box, balls have been poorly dealt with, rashly cleared or sliced into dangerous areas.
If this is Villa’s big weakness, then Smith will be deeply concerned about the quality he’s about to come up against in the form of James Ward-Prowse.
The 25-year-old’s arced deliveries are going to cause carnage and Danny Ings will be on hand to take advantage.
Exploiting a reckless midfield
Last season, Villa put together a 10-game winning streak that led them into the play-offs, where momentum carried them through to Wembley and victory.
This was all done thanks to an attacking style that blew teams away, and they’ve tried to replicate that same plan in the top tier.
Fans have responded well to that intent, but over the last few weeks concerns have settled in.
Villa have looked borderline reckless with their midfield play, committing so many bodies ahead of the ball, losing it, then facing the consequences on the counter-attack.
The Leicester game was particularly alarming; no concern, seemingly, was paid to the speed of Jamie Vardy and the creativity of James Maddison in space.
Villa pushed on and committed regardless, losing a game in which the 4-1 scoreline flattered them.
Ralph Hasenhüttl will be confident his pressing system can have success here. Any turnover on the midfield third will lead to a dangerous attacking chance, as Villa’s midfield empties forward ahead of the ball all the time.
Stopping Jack Grealish
It’s hardly a state secret that Grealish is Villa’s key man. His form has dipped a little lately in line with the team’s performances, but his overall season has been sensational.
He’s the lifeblood of the side, the player his teammates look for in every circumstance. He carries the ball like few others, lays in clever passes and has added a goal threat to his game this term.
Opponents know this, and that’s resulted in him being the most fouled player in the division so far. You can’t afford to let him roam.
Lately he’s been lining up in a narrow left-wing role, as his previous central midfield spot saw him dragged too far away from the opposition’s box.
The fact he’s allowed to float and pick his pockets of space makes him hard to track, and the solution cannot simply be “foul him” because that gives Conor Hourihane a chance to whip one of his own wicked set-pieces in.
The bulk of Saints’ defensive planning this week will be on how to prevent him from finding his gear – whether that’s stopping the supply higher up, or triangulating some coverage on him between two or three men.