In lieu of a birthday gathering, this was about as much fun as James Ward-Prowse could possibly have wanted upon turning 26. A set-piece masterclass meant Southampton had this game all but won by half-time against a Villa team that could offer nothing comparable. Ward-Prowse created the first goal for Jannik Vestergaard before scoring two impeccable free-kicks within 12 minutes of each other. Danny Ings added gloss with a spectacular effort before the hour mark before Tyrone Mings’ header allowed Villa faint hope; they roared back but goals in added time by Ollie Watkins, from the spot, and Jack Grealish were not enough to turn the tide.
Those reverses have taken some of the shine from Villa’s flying start. They were not poor here but started too slowly and were too late in showing a semblance of the verve that blew Liverpool away a month ago. Southampton, full of energy and unceasingly bright, move above them into third and look an increasingly impressive proposition.
This was the Ward-Prowse show. A majestic first-half display with the dead ball was a reminder, as if there were ever any doubt, that he has few peers in this department. The lesson took hold in the 20th minute and, although the opener’s conception was nothing revolutionary, its effect was thrilling. A free-kick to the right of Villa’s penalty area looked ripe for Ward-Prowse to deliver but, at relatively close quarters to the box, it would be no mean feat to produce a cross that combined speed, whip and accuracy. No problem: Ward-Prowse provided all three and Vestergaard leapt high between two defenders, using the pace of the ball to thunder a header back across Emiliano Martínez.
Shortly after the half-hour, Douglas Luiz barged Theo Walcott over and Ward-Prowse could hardly have asked for a better position from which to bring out a partypiece. The biggest compliment one can offer his ability with the dead ball is that, as he took aim from a position just beyond the D, the outcome simply seemed natural. Martínez was left grasping thin air by a perfect, bending shot that flew into the top corner and left Southampton oozing authority.
As the interval loomed, Ward-Prowse did it again. Southampton rightly felt aggrieved that Matty Cash was booked, rather than shown a straight red card, for deflecting a diagonal ball away from Theo Walcott with an outstretched hand when the forward had a clear run in behind. But Ward-Prowse’s eyes were already on the prize. This particular free-kick was only a shade beyond the 18-yard line and it would take superior technique to send it up, over and in. Ward-Prowse showed exactly that, curling it to a helpless Martínez’s right once again.
In a world spared the self-loathing interference of VAR, Ward-Prowse might have constructed a goal even sooner. Vestergaard flicked on his third-minute corner and, while the ball struck Ezri Konsa before crossing the line in near-slow motion, Che Adams was adjudged fractionally offside and interfering. Walcott attempted to ensure it did not matter, skimming the bar with a placed effort, before Ward-Prowse banished any frustration spectacularly.
Villa had prodded and probed without creating a serious chance. Bertrand Traoré nearly equalised Vestergaard’s goal with a deflected shot after Ross Barkley’s clever free-kick, but hobbled away from the action 29 minutes into his first Premier League start. Traoré’s replacement, Trezeguet, was the first home player to seriously engage Alex McCarthy when he saw a header shovelled away soon after the restart. The Saints keeper improved on that seconds later, pawing away when Grealish looked to nod beyond him, and the sense for Villa was that one of those had needed to go in.
Ings gave truth to that soon enough with a brilliant finish, receiving possession from Stuart Armstrong in the inside-left channel, manoeuvring inside and then thudding a vicious, swerving effort past Martínez from 20 yards. It was, like the previous three goals, unstoppable.
Because nothing can quite be ruled out in this most perplexing of seasons, Villa went into the final half-hour with their tails up after loose defending from a short corner allowed Grealish to cross for Mings, who converted a glancing header. “You’re doing the right things, you’ll get chances,” Mings exhorted his teammates during a subsequent break in play.
He had another of his own with 10 minutes left but McCarthy, who also saved spectacularly again from Trezeguet, tipped over. Watkins’ spot-kick made added time interesting and Grealish surprised McCarthy from range with the final kick but the honours went to Southampton and their wand-footed birthday boy.