This was as much fun as James Ward-Prowse could have wanted upon turning 26, although with another few minutes his birthday could have felt decidedly bittersweet. A set-piece masterclass from the Southampton midfielder appeared to have put this game comfortably to bed by half-time, with a lively away side three goals up against opposition whose probings lacked their usual fizz.
When Danny Ings scored a thudding fourth an embarrassment looked on the cards for Aston Villa, who increasingly seem to deal in feast or famine, but they played the final half-hour as if a switch had been flicked and improbably left their antagonists feeling grateful for the whistle. Southampton endured another disruption when Ings left proceedings early with a knee injury that clearly bothered Ralph Hasenhüttl, who said the striker will have a scan to assess the damage.
The late jeopardy never quite felt that acute given Villa’s final two goals, an Ollie Watkins penalty and long-range strike from Jack Grealish with the game’s last kick, came in added time. But they will feel frustrated that they only discovered a semblance of their early-season form after giving Southampton, who have become this week’s top-four pretenders, such a hefty head start.
“It isn’t a situation we are in very often, four goals up, it’s new for our players,” said Hasenhuttl. They had been clinical in converting all of their shots on target but the lead was reward for the characteristically insistent way they approached their task. It was little surprise when Ward-Prowse combined speed, whip and accuracy in delivering an undefendable right-sided free-kick for Jannik Vestergaard, rising high between two defenders, to harness the ball’s velocity with a bulleted header across Emiliano Martínez.
Ward-Prowse had already delivered a third-minute corner, flicked on by Vestergaard, that appeared to have forced an own goal from Ezri Konsa only for the lurking Che Adams to be ruled fractionally offside by VAR. Theo Walcott had also clipped the bar and Villa, looking irritable and easily distracted, were punished for not racing out of the traps.
They looked dead and buried when, in the space of 12 minutes before the interval, Ward-Prowse scored two sumptuous free-kicks. The first, 22 yards out and slightly left of centre, could hardly have been better cut out for a partypiece and was duly bent perfectly into Martínez’s top corner. There can be no higher compliment than to say the outcome was predictable.
Although the second, awarded after Matty Cash was fortunate only to be booked for handballing when Walcott would have been through, was from closer in it was arguably better. From a shade beyond the 18-yard line it needed superior technique to send the ball up, over and in. Ward-Prowse showed exactly that, curling it to a helpless Martínez’s right once again and leaving Dean Smith perplexed.
“I was scratching my head at half-time,” the Villa manager said. “It didn’t feel like a 3-0 scoreline, it was a really scrappy first half from both teams.” But Villa, who lost Bertrand Traoré to injury, had not offered enough. They began the second half more brightly, Alex McCarthy saving headers from Trezeguet and Grealish, but were caught when Ings cut in from the left and bent a spectacular shot in off the crossbar.
Even in this most unusual of Premier League seasons, that felt like the final word. Grealish had other ideas, belatedly summoning the performance of a man possessed. He crossed for Tyrone Mings to put Villa’s tails up with a glancing header and they began peppering McCarthy’s goal. He tipped over from Trezeguet and Mings, effectively ensuring there was minimal excitement when he was beaten twice more near the end. Watkins converted after Ibrahima Diallo had felled Grealish and then the Villa captain beat McCarthy with an early, opportunistic shot that took everyone by surprise.
“If we’d got another five minutes we’d probably have won the game, let alone drawn it,” Smith said, and the sentiment was hardly outlandish. Regardless, successive home defeats have dulled the shine from their start. Hasenhüttl, for his part, will sweat on the injury to Ings, whose history means alarm bells rang loudly when he seemed to overstretch near the touchline. “It doesn’t look too good to be honest,” he said. At least Ward-Prowse’s self-made celebration had already given him reason to enjoy his afternoon.