Even the five minutes of stoppage time in the second half was met with a collective groan. Aston Villa didn’t exactly blow Southampton away, but for Steven Gerrard, who spent the closing stages biting his nails, this was a win and a welcome clean sheet that will have done wonders.
Having earned a point last time out against Manchester City, Jacob Ramsey’s first-half strike was enough to earn Villa their second league win of the season and victory over a sub-par Southampton side, who will forget this game in a hurry.
John McGinn’s impromptu wrestling match with Moussa Djenepo 10 minutes from time was a highlight of a desperate and at times comical game, but arguably the moment of the match came in the 70th minute when supporters from all sides ventured into a chorus of God Save the Queen.
Ralph Hasenhüttl had indeed spoken of his love for this stadium and the feelings it evokes as a traditional ground, and before kick-off Villa Park basked in all its glory. Hasenhüttl, in a dark three-piece suit, and Gerrard, wearing a red and blue tie, led their teams out of the tunnel, both of whom joined their players in donning black armbands in deference to Queen Elizabeth, before the lights dimmed and they stood on the edge of the center circle for an impeccable minute’s silence and the national anthem. The strange cell phone light illuminated the pristine pitch.
The first-half fare didn’t live up to much, with groans filling the air when Villa’s cross failed to beat the first man, but they struck four minutes before the break through Ramsey. The goal came from the game’s first effort on goal, as Philippe Coutinho’s tame header down at the back post was kept out by Gavin Bazunu.
The Southampton keeper was getting a lot busier too, Bazunu tipping Ollie Watkins’ header from a short corner into the frame of his goal, but Ramsey was on hand to tip in off the underside of the crossbar after Mohammed Salisu’s inadvertent push failed clearance. into his path. Hasenhüttl ran his hand through his hair in frustration.
Coutinho cut a frustrated figure to that point. He gasped after sending a searing shot over the bar after spinning away from Southampton captain James Ward-Prowse, but had earlier looked to his manager, and former Liverpool team-mate, in despair when Villa failed to pick him out on left flank.
This week, Gerrard said, was Coutinho’s best in training since joining the club permanently in the summer, and the first glimpse of the Brazilian’s undoubted ability came when he sprayed a pass off the boot on the half-volley across the box to Leon Bailey, another Villa player who have too often flattered to deceive. Bailey put the shot against the side netting.
Southampton struggled to penetrate Villa, but Djenepo dislodged Lucas Digne before delivering a cross which Ezri Konsa was on hand to clear for a corner. Jan Bednarek, who was ineligible to make his debut against his parent club, sat with his Polish team-mate and now club-mate Matty Cash, missing with a hamstring injury, in a manager’s box.
Until the goal, Villa appeared anxious and in a hurry to strike. Guilty of complicating things too much, Bailey ran out of the way down the right. Douglas Luiz, replacing the injured Boubacar Kamara, took matters into his own hands, attempting his party trick just before half-time, almost beating Bazunu directly from a corner.
Southampton could hardly have been more harmless and Hasenhüttl decided to make a move at half-time, introducing 18-year-old left-back Juan Larios, a summer signing from Manchester City, for his debut and Joe Aribo, who Gerrard signed at Rangers. Southampton started the second half with far more intent, no real surprise as they have won all seven of their points after rallying behind, but still struggled to get a clear view of Emi Martínez’s goal.
Che Adams curled a shot against the advertising brackets, and Djenepo occasionally burst forward from halfway. A miserable game was further diluted when Gerrard turned to his bench midway through the second half. Leander Dendoncker replaced Ramsey to make his Villa debut and Emi Buendía came on for Bailey. Southampton badly needed a spark.
Larios was game and stormed down the wing, but Martínez, who missed training on Thursday, was quick to push up the danger. A strained Southampton performance was summed up by their only notable effort on goal, a weak header by Sekou Mara from a long throw from Salisu that went into the hands of Martínez. Bazunu went up for a late corner, but after Villa cleared the former, Southampton striker Danny Ings put himself wide from halfway.