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Analysis: Aston Villa a team on the move again under Unai Emery

Plaudits for beating opponents bottom of the league are typically reserved.

Yet Saturday’s 1-0 win at Southampton felt a sneakily significant result for a Villa team whose only consistency for much of the past two years has been inconsistency.

Under Unai Emery, that is starting to change. This was Villa’s fifth win in seven Premier League matches under the Spaniard, extending a perfect return on the road to three from three.

From sitting above the relegation zone thanks to goal difference when they kicked off the first match of Emery’s reign, Villa are now within striking distance of the top six.

The question increasingly being asked is how much further they can climb and while it will take a few more victories before they can be seriously considered challengers for European football this season, the fact the possibility is even being talked about highlights their rapid transformation in mentality and style.

From back to front, there isn’t a component of the team which isn’t improved. After struggling to create chances, let alone score goals, through an often tortuous opening few months of the campaign, Villa have netted in every match under Emery.

Saturday, funnily enough, was only the second time they have failed to score more than once and yet the single goal was all they required, in large part because a team who for so long carried an air of fragility have suddenly become ruthless closers. Villa are yet to relinquish a lead under Emery in the league and when Ollie Watkins headed them in front 13 minutes from time, there was never a moment when you feared they might concede a leveller.

That Watkins was the match-winner, at the end of a week in which top scorer Danny Ings was sold to West Ham, felt fitting.

The 27-year-old endured a difficult first half to the campaign but while his forward partner, Leon Bailey, missed a hat-trick of chances either side of half-time, Watkins buried the only one which came his way, arriving unmarked to meet Douglas Luiz’s free-kick and sending a header beyond Gavin Bazunu in the home goal.

That guaranteed the England international the headlines, yet the real star of Villa’s show was at the other end of the pitch.

Emi Martinez might not have been forced into a serious save until just past the hour mark, when he thrust out his right leg to block Adam Armstrong’s low drive, but the goalkeeper had already made a big impression with his presence and positioning.

Emery’s desire for Villa to play out patiently from the back means the Argentina international is involved more than ever and the coolness with which he passed the ball filtered through the rest of the team. On several occasions, meanwhile, he snuffed out counter-attacks by racing out of the penalty area, timing each of his runs to perfection. Manuel Neuer couldn’t have done it any better.

To think there were fears Martinez might need time to readjust following the high of last month’s World Cup win. Instead, the early evidence is the experience has made him an even better goalkeeper.

One week after pulling off a brilliant save to deny Jack Harrison in the win over Leeds, he was again at his commanding best to secure a 30th Premier League clean sheet since joining Villa. Though his save to prevent Moussa Djenepo equalising in stoppage time here was routine by his standards, it felt appropriate he had the final word.

Southampton would argue Martinez was beaten twice, but there could be few complaints both were ruled out.

Che Adams and Kyle Walker-Peters were guilty of straying offside before combining to bundle home Lyanco’s first-half cross.

Villa’s second escape, after James Ward-Prowse’s strike had deflected off Ezri Konsa’s boot, was slightly more contentious. But while the apparent push on Jacob Ramsey by Mohamed Elyounoussi in the build-up looked a little soft on first viewing, replays revealed the Southampton substitute had also trodden on his opponent’s foot. Once referee Michael Salisbury had consulted the pitchside monitor, the decision was obvious. That came during a five-minute spell when the hosts subjected Villa to sustained pressure. Otherwise it was the visitors in control and if there was a criticism of their performance, it was the failure to make that dominance count sooner.

Time and again Villa won possession within 30 yards of the opposing goal, only for the final pass to elude them. When they did then create chances, they were missed, Jacob Ramsey shooting too close to Bazunu just past the half-hour mark and Bailey hurriedly blazing the rebound over the bar.

The winger was also guilty of losing composure when he slipped arriving to meet an Alex Moreno cross in first half stoppage time and then again, within seconds of the restart, when he shot weakly at Bazunu after being given the ball in an excellent position. Watkins’ goal ensured Villa won’t spend the next fortnight ruing their profligacy.

Instead they will spend it planning for the visit of Leicester. Emery’s focus remains game-to-game and there seems little chance of the boss getting carried away by the impressive start. Back-to-back meetings with Manchester City and Arsenal in the middle of next month will provide a serious test of Villa’s progress and perhaps a reality check.

But with six of their next nine matches against teams below them in the table, the chance to push forward is undoubtedly there. Though it has taken longer than anyone desired, Villa look a team on the move again.

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