When Aston Villa come back from the international break on Sunday, they'll be well into their season. Starting with the visit to Villa Park by Tottenham, Aston Villa will have four weeks in a row of matches, followed by a week off, followed then by a grueling stretch which has two 10-day breaks and not much else. So before we begin that down-hill plunge, we thought it would be good to assess where Aston Villa stand after their first seven matches of the season.
The season got off to a unexpectedly great start with a stunning 3-1 victory at Arsenal. Christian Benteke found the back of the net twice, and Antonio Luna, in his Aston Villa premier, managed to score the club's third on the day. The defense looked mostly good and the offense looked lethal with its quick counterattack. Even though the opening weeks looked to be difficult, Villa fans could not have been in higher spirits.
And then the next three matches happened. The losses to Chelsea and Liverpool were understandable. In both, Villa played well enough to win, and held their own against two of the Premier League's best squads. In both a couple of suspect officiating decisions also probably hurt the claret and blue chances. The losses hurt, but there were so many ways to justify what happened that most of us were unfazed. We knew there was a long break coming up and an imminently winnable match at home against Newcastle on the other side. But that match didn't prove winnable. The 1-2 loss was crushing, and left Villa with only three points from their first four matches. The one upside was that none of the matches had been blowouts and the goal differential wasn't doing too poorly.
But Paul Lambert had the team ready to go when they travelled to Carrow Road to face Norwich City. Things looked insanely bleak when Christian Benteke came off injured in the 28th minute, but Libor Kozak, his replacement, made us all temporarily forget our sorrows with a fantastic debut goal that gave Villa a 1-0 lead that they wouldn't relinquish. The joy lasted all of a few days when Tottenham came to Villa Park for the League Cup. I think most of us expected a loss - the club was, after all, without Benteke - but the 0-4 blowout was humiliating.
So the team went into their home fixture with Manchester City expecting the worst. And really, from a football numbers standpoint, that's what happened. City dominated possession, had far more shots than Villa did, and seemed to have figured out the secret to scoring on every corner (hint: against Villa, the secret to scoring on corners is to get them). But aside from those defensive lapses on set pieces, the back three actually put in a herculean effort and held one of the best club's in the world to two goals. More amazing still was that the offense managed three of their own, despite only having 33% possession.
With the high of an unexpected victory, Villa headed to face newly promoted Hull City. And yes, the match was ugly. Yes it was boring. But still, Villa went on the road against an unexpectedly stout side and managed to get a point. And that's where we stand now, having taken 10 points from 7 matches.
Compared to the way Villa have played in recent seasons, 10 points from 7 is fantastic. But it gets even more impressive when you take a look at strength of schedule. We all can just glance at the first seven and realize that VIlla had a tough time of it. But the good folks at Bitter and Blue actually dug into the numbers, using the best indicators of squad strength including Total Shots Ratio (shots for / (shots for + shots against)), Shots on Target Ratio, and others. If you'd rather skip the numbers, here is the moral:
Villa have had a damn hard fixture list... No team has faced anywhere near this level of competition in their first 8 games. Villa, somehow, have 10 points from their first 7 fixtures. Hell, even if they remain on 10 points after the Tottenham fixture, I still think they have done remarkably well.
-Bitter and Blue
But, how does this Villa squad compare to last year's?
Comparing 2012-13 to 2013-14
I've been quietly running a feature in the Monday editions of Kickin' It that compares Aston Villa's current campaign against the corresponding fixtures from last year. If you'd like a more full explanation, take a look here. But let's actually dive in a little. The idea in looking at corresponding fixtures is that it's quite hard to compare one season to another. If you just go by matches, teams will have played wildly different schedules. Now, to be honest, even comparing these corresponding fixtures is a bit disingenuous, as neither team is the same as the one that took the pitch when the last such instance happened. But hey, it's nice to have something, anything, that makes us feel good about this iteration of Aston Villa.
So take a look at this graph. You'll see buttons at the top for "Goals Allowed" "Goals Scored" and "Points." Click on them! They will change your views! This years numbers are in claret while last year's are in blue. Keep in mind that I've randomly assigned the three newly promoted teams to the relegated teams from last year, so Hull City is taking the place of Wigan.
Put simply, Villa are outperforming themselves from last year at an astonishing rate. They've allowed 10 fewer goals, scored two more, and nabbed an extra six points from these matches that they didn't get last season. Think about that for a second. From these seven matches last year, Villa got four points. This year they have ten. And after Tottenham? The schedule gets a bit easier, to say the least.
But, for the moment, let's say you'd just like to compare the first seven matches of the two seasons. It's a bit more shaky to do that, but there's something to be said for looking at the opening of the season. It sets the tone for everything to follow. Here's what you'd get looking at the same numbers as above.
They've allowed one fewer goal, scored three more, and have five more points to show for their efforts. Either way you look at the start, it's a significant improvement to the dismal 2012-13 campaign. Combine that with the fixtures coming up and the obvious improvement in the squad and I think we're in for something exciting this year.
Compared to the rest of the League
As rosy as the season has been, it gets a little less so when we compare Aston Villa to the rest of the Premier League. Aston Villa have been below league averages in several significant categories, including pass success, possession, shots conceded, and shots taken. If you hover over the bars in this chart, you'll get the actual numeric values:
Perhaps most concerning is the pass success percentage. Villa rank 17th in the league in that category, and anyone who has watched the club this year could tell you that, apart from the resurgent Fabian Delph, passing has been a significant problem for the club. It seems readily apparent that one of the big goals of the January trasnfer window should be bringing in a creative midfielder who can link between the defense and attack with some consistency.
Where they stand right now
Flaws aside, Aston Villa have set themselves up to have a fantastic season. Note that, for our purposes, fantastic doesn't mean top-6. Realistically, fantastic means that they have a strong chance of finishing in the top half of the league. Barring the improbable, the club shouldn't ever be seriously worried about a relegation fight for the rest of the year either, and they have their strong performance in the first seven matches to thank for that.
Should the team manage to stay healthy, especially Christian Benteke, the matches after Tottenham visits Villa Park look ripe for taking points from. Everton comes to Villa next, and then it's matches against West Ham, Cardiff, West Brom, Sunderland, Southampton, and Fulham. Villa could use that stretch to build themselves a nice cushion from which they could work through the winter.
Things haven't been perfect since the season began, but it's hard to imagine a scenario in which this club faced this schedule and did much better. (And it's astonishing to think that, if a few breaks had gone their way - an equalizer against Chelsea and Liverpool and a lone goal against Hull City - they could easily have 15 points.) This is a club that is, finally, fun to watch. They aren't world-beaters, but they're worth watching. After what we've been through in the last few years, I think that's all that most of us really want anyways.