Southampton moved 10 points clear of the relegation zone following a well-deserved 2-0 victory over a struggling Aston Villa side at St Mary’s.
Hoping to bounce back from last weekend’s home defeat to Burnley, Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl made three changes to his side. He handed a Premier League debut to youngster Will Smallbone, whilst Moussa Djenepo and Jan Bednarek were selected in place of Sofiane Boufal and the injured Kyle Walker-Peters. Southampton beat Villa 3-1 in the reverse fixture before Christmas, but they were coming into this game on the back of three successive defeats.
Southampton were on top for much of the first half and created the game’s first meaningful chance after just six minutes. Smallbone, who celebrated his 20th birthday yesterday, came close to marking his debut with a goal when his 25-yard strike was deflected on to the post by England international Tyrone Mings. This prompted more Saints pressure as Armstrong soon forced a first save from veteran keeper Pepe Reina.
Villa’s resistance wouldn’t last long however as a couple of minutes later, the home side took the lead after a smart finish from Shane Long at the near post – his second goal in three games. The Irishman adjusted his body well to convert with his thigh after Djenepo produced a fine cross from inside the box with the outside of his right foot.
Aston Villa arrived at St Mary’s with the worst defensive record in the league and the Saints were successful in exploiting that weakness for much of the 90 minutes. The away side’s defence proved fragile as both Djenepo and Ings wasted glorious, one-on-one chances inside the box to double their side’s lead.
Dean Smith’s men never curbed Southampton’s dominance, though they did have the ball in the back of the net 7 minutes before the interval. Most of Villa’s attacking threat came from their captain Jack Grealish and he showcased his talents with a brilliantly disguised pass to release Mbwana Samatta, who finished well only to find his goal ruled out by the offside flag.
The second half started slowly as Southampton looked to put the game out of Villa’s reach, with the Midlands side failing to register a single shot on target in the first hour. The Saints would eventually regain control of the match and nearly extended their lead in the 59th minute when Jack Stephens flicked Ryan Bertrand’s dangerous free kick over the bar.
Soon after, Southampton threatened again when a square pass was deflected into the path of Armstrong. The Scottish midfielder rounded Reina but from a difficult angle, he could only roll his shot into the side netting.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was the next Saints player to test the Villa keeper with the skipper’s 20-yard volley forcing Reina into making a fine save. At the other end of the pitch, Samatta tried to spring Villa into life with 20 minutes left but was unable to find a way past Southampton’s defence, as his shot deflected out for a corner.
The home side’s priorities turned to keeping a clean sheet in the closing stages, but substitute Che Adams would still come close to scoring against his former rivals. Adams was quick to pounce onto a loose ball in the area and was certain to score, if not for a last-ditch block from Kortney Hause.
Stephens and Bednarek continued to defend resolutely and their side deservedly wrapped up the victory deep into injury time. With Reina up for a corner, Southampton won the ball back and broke free, with Adams’s diagonal pass finding Armstrong, who side-footed the ball into the empty net with virtually the last kick of the game.
Ralph Hasenhuttl spoke to BBC Sport after the vital win:
It was very important to show a reaction after the last home game and the way we started was what we wanted to do today. We had 28 shots and that shows how dominant we have been. It was a fantastic atmosphere and the guys enjoyed it. It’s important to have a fortress here again.
Southampton remain in 12th in the Premier League table after only their fourth home league win of the season. They now travel to the London Stadium next Saturday on high spirits to face West Ham.