Analysis: Sense and reason taking a backseat on Aston Villa rollercoaster

Six matches in, making sense of Villa’s Premier League season so far feels an increasingly thankless task.

Even more so after yesterday afternoon and a game which for a long time looked set to deliver a heavy, sobering defeat yet ended with head coach Dean Smith pondering what might have been.

Had Southampton goalkeeper Alex McCarthy not saved impressively from Jack Grealish, Trezeguet and Tyrone Mings in the second half, Villa could have filed an improbable comeback from 4-0 down alongside their other achievements to this point of the campaign.

As it was, stoppage time strikes from Ollie Watkins and Grealish merely restored some pride and perhaps confidence to a team who looked set to have theirs seriously bruised when Danny Ings netted the Saints fourth of the afternoon just prior to the hour mark.

The final scoreline, in truth, made the match appear closer than it ever really felt though, by the same token, a 4-1 defeat would have felt a little harsh on Villa, who at the very least showed encouraging strength of character with their second half tenacity.

With four wins from the first six fixtures, the start to the season can still be claimed to have comfortably exceeded expectations, even though successive defeats have highlighted areas for Smith and his players to work on.

Apparently able to do no wrong over the campaign’s opening month, yesterday’s loss, much like that suffered against Leeds the previous week, provided something of a reality check.

Absent from both performances has been the defensive discipline which provided the backbone to those early positive results.

It is true Villa came up against a Southampton team who were brutally efficient in taking their chances. Other than pick the ball out of the net five times (the Saints also had an early goal chalked off by VAR), home goalkeeper Emi Martinez had little else to do. All four of the visiting goals which did count were superb finishes, which he had no chance of saving.

Yet basic errors by Villa which presented their opponents with those opportunities in the first place.

For the opener Matt Targett dived in, while attempting to block a cross, conceding a free-kick on the wing. When the ball was sent whizzing into the box by James Ward-Prowse, Jannik Vestergaard took advantage of a physical mismatch to get in front of John McGinn and power a header into the top corner.

Douglas Luiz and Matty Cash were then both guilty of sloppy play to concede the free-kicks which Ward-Prowse, a set piece specialist, brilliantly dispatched as he celebrated his 26th birthday in style.

Danny Ings’ strike 13 minutes into the second half, which proved to be the match-winner, was sublime and one where it would be churlish to place too much blame on the defenders.

Villa’s response to that goal, the seventh they had conceded in barely 90 minutes including the second half against Leeds, will have been the biggest positive of the afternoon for Smith.

Rather than wilt, his players stuck to the task and eventually an attacking unit which had itself started to look a little clunky, with only Ross Barkley’s stoppage time winner to cheer about since the 7-2 demolition of Liverpool, began to rediscover some rhythm.

Barkley had enjoyed an outstanding start to life at Villa but just as against Leeds this was another afternoon where things just didn’t quite come off for the Chelsea loanee.

Ditto John McGinn, who struggled to make his presence felt in the middle of the park during the first-half. With Luiz also taking time to find his stride before finishing the match strongly Villa’s midfield, formidable though it might appear on paper, had not really delivered for the second game running.

Instead it was Grealish who, far from the first time, provided the spark to get Villa motoring. The skipper’s chipped ball into the box was headed home by Mings just past the hour mark to restore a little belief. It was then Grealish who was felled by Saints substitute Ibrahima Diallo, giving Watkins the chance to net his fourth Premier League goal of the season from the spot, before Villa’s talisman beat McCarthy at his near post from outside the box to reduce the deficit to one.

A brilliant goal, it was met with barely any reaction as by then time was almost up. Instead Grealish and Villa were left to rue the earlier work of the Saints keeper, who had kept out his header and twice denied Trezeguet – on the second occasion in spectacular fashion.

Maintaining a sense of perspective is important, particularly so during the early in a season where results for many teams are proving wildly unpredictable.

Just as it was pointless to proclaim Villa title challengers after their humbling of Liverpool, neither are consecutive home defeats any reason to panic. Southampton, for one thing, are formidable opponents, who are only behind Manchester City and Liverpool in the virtual table since football resumed in June. Villa’s points haul after six matches remains greater than that attained after 12 last season.

If anything, the last two games have merely been a reminder Smith’s men are not immune to the general madness which seems to have enveloped much of the top flight this term.

Next up is a trip to Arsenal and a match which Villa will enter as underdogs but where on current form a heavy defeat, victory or goal-less draw would all be equally unsurprising. For now, the best advice to supporters might be to simply sit back and try to enjoy the ride. There’s really no telling, on the evidence so far, precisely where it is heading.

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