Southampton's win over Manchester City gave the Saints a much bigger cushion from their relegation rivals. The manner in which they held off the defending champions could teach Aston Villa a very important lesson.
As you've no doubt heard, Southampton gave themselves a good bit of breathing room with a shocking dismantling of defending Premier League champions Manchester City at St. Mary's stadium on Saturday. The Saints grabbed a quick early lead and added another before the half-hour mark and went to the locker room ahead 2-1. Gareth Barry scored the game's final goal (into his own net, as he is wont to do) just three minutes into the half. That's 46 minutes that Southampton held an excellent side in need of two goals scoreless, and though Manchester City was quite clearly well below par on the day it was clearly an impressive effort from the home side.
I'm not bringing any of this up because I enjoy talking about Southampton winning a game Villa really could have done with them losing. I don't enjoy pulling for City, but the circumstances called for it, and it was a pretty unpleasant way to spend two hours. But it wasn't just watching Southampton pull further away from the pack that made it painful; the relative ease with which they saw out the win made for a very uncomfortable comparison with the final 25 minutes of last week's 3-3 draw with Everton.
It's not just the Everton result, of course. There was West Brom, Swansea, Norwich City...you've got the picture. Aston Villa is very bad at seeing off games, and it's been an increasingly consistent theme over the past month with the Everton game being just the most recent (and possible most egregious) example. It's almost as though Villa has no concept of how to play with what ought to be a comfortable lead, and their panic and lack of organization in response gives the opposition an easy way back. Some teams bunker when the opposition ramps up the pressure; Aston Villa retracts into their shell and allows themselves to be kicked onto their back.
The more I watch, the less I think it's a tactical issue or any kind of conscious decision to put ten men behind the ball and pray. Instead, I just don't think this team has any concept of protecting a lead or continuing to apply pressure on an opponent that's trying to work their way back. Southampton kept Manchester City on their toes by exploiting the gaping holes left by their need to go on the full offensive. The Saints were unable to add another, but they came close enough to keep City from committing as fully as they would have liked. "Attack is the best form of defense" is an old and often mis-used cliche, but in this case it applies. There's little doubt in my mind that had Villa been able to counter-punch effectively after Everton ramped up the pressure, they'd have earned another two points last weekend and would be in a much more comfortable position today.
The good news is that Southampton closing out a game is a pretty recent development in its own right. Southampton's 24 points dropped from winning positions is highest in the league, and they've been on the receiving end of several results even more painful than the one Villa endured last week. This is something Aston Villa can quite plausibly improve, and seeing as how they've managed to keep their opposition close for the vast majority of the season, doing so could make a huge difference in the way things stand at the end of the year. But sitting deep, giving up on the attack and hanging on for dear life isn't going to cut it.