A 4-0 thumping at the hands of Aston Villa on Saturday brought to an end Southampton’s impressive recent run in the Premier League. More importantly perhaps, Villa’s tactical approach could symbolise a significant and pragmatic approach to overcoming the high press favoured by Leeds, Southampton, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Coming off the back of successive victories against Everton and Norwich respectively, plus impressive performances against the two Manchester clubs, the Saints may have come into this game as marginal favourites against a Villa side searching for greater consistency under Gerrard.
However, Villa had clearly done their homework on the Saints high pressing game; countering with a direct and effective style that beat the press more often than not. It could be argued that Ollie Watkins had one of his best games in a Villa shirt since his high profile move from Brentford in 2020, holding the ball up superbly for Phillipe Coutinho and Danny Ings at times. First half goals from Ollie Watkins and Douglas Luiz helped the Villains to a 2-0 lead at half-time, although it perhaps should have been three: Coutinho missing a golden chance on the stroke of half-time. Despite making significant changes to Southampton’s shape at half-time, Ralf Hasenhuttl’s side were unable to cope with a rampant Villa and further goals from Coutinho and Saints old boy, Danny Ings, inflicted defeat on the Saints for the first time in seven matches.
With Southampton’s central defence seemingly as unbalanced as Laurel and Hardy on a playground seesaw, Fraser Forster was forced into some last ditch heroics in the Southampton goal. Meanwhile, the Saints were restricted to relatively few chances throughout the match; Che Adams headed over from close range while Stuart Armstrong was uncharacteristically wayward with a couple of mid-range efforts.
The defeat comes amid increasing speculation linking Hasenhuttl with the soon-to-be vacant Manchester United role. Openly vocal in his criticism of the United players’ defensive work rate, after Southampton held United at Old Trafford in February, Hasenhuttl is tipped to be in the running alongside Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag. Both Pochetinno and Hasenhuttl favour the high pressing game. But, given Hasenhuttl’s criticism, such tactics could demand a much higher work rate from the United squad and a shift away from their favoured counter attacking style.
If Marcelo Bielsa’s terminal form at Leeds is anything to go by, teams – such as Villa this weekend, are beginning to learn how to counter the high pressing game. Direct and accurate long passes from defence, which take large numbers of players out of the game quickly, creating devastating four against three situations in and around the oppositions penalty box seems to be the pragmatic response. The ball playing centre back may once again be the ‘must have’ player in every side as teams look to beat the press with accurate passing behind pressing midfielders.
The Saints upcoming fixtures are all against relegation threatened teams who play in a direct way. It will be interesting to see if the Saints’ high pressing game is thwarted again or if it was merely a bad day at ‘the office.’
Interestingly, Villa travel to Leeds next where one might expect more of the same from Gerrard’s men.