Sam Tighe previews the Friday night visit of Aston Villa to Southampton in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Just a month ago, Aston Villa beat Everton and Manchester United in back-to-back Premier League games, settling themselves into a top-half position in the table with 10 points from six games.
A month later, they’re still on 10 points – only now from 10 games. Four straight losses have seen them stall out; the last two, against Wolves and West Ham, featured late collapses and red cards.
No team in the league is on a longer losing streak, and given the quality of the players at Dean Smith’s disposal, you could make the argument that no team in the league is underperforming more.
Villa entered October playing a 3-5-2 formation, pairing Ollie Watkins with former Saint Danny Ings up top, and utilising a high-pressing structure aided by midfielders Jacob Ramsey and John McGinn. They exited October in a 4-3-3 shape, having briefly dabbled with a 4-2-3-1 in between; to say they feel a bit tactically confused at the moment is an understatement.
With star centre-back Ezri Konsa suspended for this game, most signs point toward the continuation of a back four, most likely with captain Tyrone Mings partnered by loanee Axel Tuanzebe. Curiously, that’s the same centre-back partnership that started the play-off final win in 2019, with Tuanzebe on his third loan at the club.
Deployed to the right will be Villa’s in-form man, Matty Cash. He’s one of the few whose performance levels haven’t dipped of late, rampaging up and down the right flank, getting shots away and getting into the box frequently.
He’s the talk of Birmingham right now not just because of his form, but also because he’s obtained a Polish passport and has been called up for their next international squad alongside Robert Lewandowski.
From there it gets murky. A litany of injuries in midfield and up top mean Ralph Hasenhüttl will struggle to predict what’s coming – simply because Smith will struggle to himself.
Ings, Douglas Luiz and Morgan Sanson all missed the West Ham game, while Ramsey turned his ankle during the match. Smith’s response to that injury was to turn to the experienced Ashley Young and play him centrally; it was an awkward fit, so given Ramsey trained fully on Thursday, you’d expect him back in if possible.
Big summer signings Emi Buendía and Leon Bailey are yet to find their groove in attack but have flashed deadly moments – Bailey’s explosive cameo against Everton generated real excitement, while Buendía’s mix of hard work and clever passing is a positive presence.
Last season Villa were a strong pressing unit with a rapier-like attack built around Jack Grealish. Post-Grealish they’re still searching for a new offensive identity and structure; they’re still figuring out their best XI and still tinkering with different shapes.
All of that has created uncertainty. Southampton must prey on that uncertainty, stretch the defence via the channels and commit to winning the midfield battle; do so, and they might just extend Villa’s streak to five.