Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe identifies three key areas that could decide Saturday's meeting between Southampton and Aston Villa in the Premier League...
This weekend Southampton welcome Aston Villa to St Mary’s and will look to extend a six-game unbeaten run against them in all competitions.
Saints have won four of their last six matches against the Villans, with their most recent encounter in Birmingham producing a three-point haul.
Replicate that feat and Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men will be well on their way to the fabled 40-point mark.
In order to do so, Southampton must key in on Villa’s weaknesses whilst simultaneously keeping one of the Premier League’s most dangerous creators in check. So, what’s the plan?
Beware Jack Grealish
Villa’s outstanding player this season has been Grealish. A talismanic figure, a captain who leads by example, his seven goals and six assists in the league have been key to the club’s survival quest.
He began the season as part of a central midfield trio but too often ended up in a defensive capacity, so a switch to an inverted left-wing role – not dissimilar to Nathan Redmond’s, though in a different overall tactical setup – has freed him up to attack the final third more.
His ball-carrying ability is rivalled by few, and his ability to draw multiple markers towards him before laying it off to a teammate in space is a constant danger. Overlapping wing-back Matt Targett gets free crosses and shots on goal every game as a result.
He has to be closed down, as his long-range shooting is a threat. But holding him up, rather than trying to dispossess, is often the smarter approach as he protects the ball with his body so well.
If multiple men commit to closing him down, beware his extremely late release of the ball that will find Targett or another runner.
Punish at set-pieces
Aston Villa lead the Premier League in a rather unenviable category: they’ve conceded the most goals from set-pieces (14), three more than next-worst Everton (11). That’s 28 per cent of their total number (50), which is also the highest in the league.
It’s an issue that has plagued their season, forcing them to change formation (4-3-3 to 3-4-3) at the turn of the year in an effort to get an extra big body in the box to help deal with balls in.
It’s helped a bit, but this still undoubtedly counts as a weakness – a fact hammered home last weekend as Toby Alderweireld slammed a second ball home from a corner.
Southampton have already profited once from this, with Jack Stephens nodding in at Villa Park in December, and James Ward-Prowse’s wicked deliveries are certain to cause more chaos this weekend.
Set-piece goals conceded isn’t the only unenviable category Villa lead the Premier League in this season; they’ve also made the most errors leading to goals (nine), with many coming late in games.
Last week’s tussle with Tottenham saw one such error cost them a point, a 94th-minute lapse in concentration allowing Son Heung-Min to speed in on goal and finish to take all three points. From Villa’s standpoint, it felt an uncomfortably familiar situation.
Southampton’s hustle-and-bustle style naturally forces mistakes, putting opponents under such pressure they end up turning the ball over.
Staying true to those principles could well yield results here – particularly late in the game, as no side as conceded more goals (12) in the final 15 minutes of Premier League contests than Villa.