Saints went down to Aston Villa in one of the most bizarre games in recent memory. Nearly everything that could go wrong for the home side did. Saints were far from their best, and had to contend with a series of injuries, which severely disrupted the game-plan. Having said all that, Mauricio Pochettino's men were still much the better side on the night, and were unlucky not to come away with a point.
Pochettino sprung a few surprises in his initial team selection. Maya Yoshida came in for his first league start of the season ahead of Jose Fonte. James Ward-Prowse filled Morgan Schneiderlin's place in the middle, with Steven Davis coming in on the right. Rickie Lambert started the game up front, but soon dropped back into a wide role, with Adam Lallana coming into the middle. Lambert, Lallana and Jay Rodriguez regularly switched positions in an attempt to drum up some fluency.
The first 45 was possibly the least impressive at St Marys this season, but Saints did make a reasonable start. Some patient build up play yielded a few early chances. Lallana clipped the crossbar from a very difficult angle. Villa keeper Brad Guzan may have handled the ball outside the area, but no infringement was spotted by the referee. The American keeper then struggled with a dipping Rodriguez shot, but eventually gathered the ball.
Villa's game plan was to simply sit back when Saints had the ball, and break with pace on the counter. It wasn't pretty, but it worked. It was this approach which led to the first goal. Saints' high-line was caught out, with Gabby Agonlahor foxing Yoshida on half-way. The Villa forward had a clear run towards goal, before calmly slotting past Paulo Gazzaniga.
Saints were often sloppy and pedestrian on the ball. Villa offered very little themselves, but looked comfortable defensively. The home side struggled to play through a congested backline and were often forced to use a more direct route towards goal. Luke Shaw pushed further forward as the game wore on, with Saints creating most of their chances from crosses. Rodriguez forced a great save from Guzan on 27. Lovren's downward header from the resulting corner was blocked. Shaw was teed-up on the edge of the area from a corner, but fired his shot too close to Guzan. On 37 minutes Rodriguez cut a dangerous ball across goal, but there was nobody there to get on the end of it. Pochettino replaced Ward-Prowse with Dani Osvaldo before the break. Davis came into the middle, with Osvaldo offering further support going forward.
Saints were forced into a second change at half-time, with Jack Cork coming on for the injured Wanyama. The equaliser arrived just two minutes after the break. Nathaniel Clyne's deep cross was headed into the back of the net by Rodriguez inside the penalty area. Villa almost restored their lead immediately with Agbonlahor shooting wide from a difficult angle, following another fine individual run.
Pochettino was soon forced to reshuffle things further when Clyne limped off injured. Jose Fonte took his place, with Saints reverting to a back three. By this point Shaw was primarily operating as a winger. Davis and Cork stayed in the centre, with Osvaldo, Lambert, Lallana and Rodriguez interchanging positions up front. Saints looked more ambitious going forward, and dominated possession, but were now even more susceptible to counter attacks.
Villa made it 2-1 just as Saints were starting to find some rhythm going forward. Just moments earlier Osvaldo had tested Guzan with an audacious back-heel, following a neat set-up from Rodriguez. Lambert then blasted over the bar, before the away side came forward. A cross came in from the right-hand side for Libor Kozak, who got ahead of his man before heading through Gazzaniga's grasp. It was a weak goal for the Argentinian keeper to concede. Saints responded well, spending the next few minutes camped just outside Villa's penalty box. The hosts were rewarded for their persistence on 69 when Osvaldo headed in for his second goal of the season. Fonte created the chance with a high cross to the back post. Lambert headed the ball across goal, and Osvaldo was there in the right place at the right time.
The game remained on a knife-edge during the final 20 minutes. Saints played some decent stuff, and created a few openings, with Rodriguez forcing Guzan into conceding a corner on 73. As poor as Villa were, the few times they broke, you always feared they were capable of scoring. There had been a gaping hole in front of the back four in the absence of Wanyama. Villa exploited this on 80 minutes when Fabian Delph was given acres of room to drive forward. He eventually took aim and struck a powerful effort into the top corner of the net. Saints pushed hard for a leveller until the very end, but it never arrived. Things threatened to spiral out of control in stoppage time when Andreas Weimann hit Shaw with a crunching late tackle. Saints players reacted furiously, but Weimann was only booked. The bad blood continued to fester after the final whistle. Osvaldo was booked right at the end, and had to be pulled back by Pochettino after the game. An incredible end, to a very strange game.
It's difficult to know where to start in analysing that game. Saints were clearly missing Morgan Schneiderlin and Artur Boruc. Injuries to Wanyama and Clyne only compounded things further. That's four of our most important players missing. It was obviously going to have an adverse effect. In hindsight starting with Yoshida probably wasn't the best decision. The Japanese centre-half was excellent for much of last season, but has barely played recently, so it was always going to take time to get up to speed with things. Fonte had a slight knock, but Jos Hooiveld would have probably been a better option on this occasion, having played fairly well at Arsenal recently. Wanyama did a great job of protecting the back four after the first Villa goal, but when he went off Saints were exposed again. Cork played a lot more advanced, leaving the back four unprotected. Pochettino was perhaps too ambitious in the second half, although he didn't have too many other options in terms of the substitutions. He made mistakes, but individual errors were costly too. You can talk about tactics all you like, but the fact is there's no way Saints would have lost that game if it wasn't for all the injuries.We did play some good stuff at times going forward. Osvaldo looks promising and is starting to link-up better with some of his attacking teammates. Villa were largely poor, and were dominated in nearly every aspect of the game, except where it truly matters.
Saints' win over Man City last season was probably the most impressive result ever at St Marys. A win on Saturday with so many injuries would top even that. Pochettino has a hell of a job on his hands to get the team ready for this one. Expect a much more cautious approach.
Gazzaniga: 4. Looked nervy all evening, and should have done better for at least one of the goals
Clyne: 6. A reasonable showing. Great cross for the first goal. Injury a big blow
Yoshida: 4. Looked incredibly rusty, struggled to get to grips with the pace of the game
Lovren: 5. Didn't look himself without the added protection in front of the back four
Shaw: 7. Created some openings with some decent runs down the flank
Wanyama: 7. Spent most of the first half sat in front of the back four, and spread the ball about well. Presence sorely missed after the break
Ward-Prowse: 5. Slightly unfortunate to go off so early, but not really involved too much
Davis: 6. Kept the ball moving quickly, but didn't really do a lot when within shooting range
Lallana: 6. Bright in spells early on, but less influential as the game wore on
Rodriguez: 7. A good goal and the player who looked most likely to make something happen towards the end of the game
Lambert: 6. Not his best game ever, but some decent hold-up play, and a nice assist
Osvaldo: 6. Nice to see him get on the scoresheet. A work in progress, but plenty to like
Cork: 5. Decent on the ball, but failed to offer the defensive presence that Wanyama did
Fonte: 6. Decent cross which led to the 2nd Saints goal