Rules Change Would Help Aston Villa, or, Playing for 80

Michael Regan

What if Aston Villa got to play an 80-minute match? How about just one half?

When Arsenal's Santi Cazorla scored an 85th-minute goal against Aston Villa to seal the Gunners' victory on Saturday, there was a lot of complaining that Villa simply couldn't play 90 minutes. More specifically, the line I saw a lot on Twitter was that Aston Villa always seemed to quit in the final 10 minutes of play.

And yes, it seems like Villa have given up a lot of last-ditch goals that seem to lose the team points. But I was curious: just how much of a difference have those goals made? So I set out to figure what might have changed. My methodology was simple: treat each match as if it ended in the 80th minute. At first I thought of just discounting opposing goals in the final 10 minutes (plus stoppage) but that seemed unfair. So to even things out, I just wiped out every goal that was scored in the 81st minute or later.

And the results? Aston Villa have indeed lost some points to goals in the last 10 minutes, but it's not quite as bad as we all think. If every match were to end after 80 minutes, Aston Villa would have 31 points and - not counting the impact on other teams' total points - be sitting in 13th place right now. That's certainly not insignificant, but it's not apocalyptic either. Let's take a look at the matches that would have changed:

80-minute_match_copy

In other words, Villa allowed two matches that, had they been finished after 80 minutes, would have been wins to turn into draws. Losing three draws in the final 10 minutes does not strike me as all that jarring, actually. These things happen from time to time.

You may notice that this leaves out one of the most jarring instances of a late Villa failure, the January 1st match at Swansea, in which Villa conceded in the 4th minute of stoppage time to allow a 2-2 draw. What many of us forget, however, is that Villa were only in a winning position thanks to an 84th-minute penalty taken by Christian Benteke. Using the 80-minute match rules, Villa would've still had a draw.

I began to wonder what would have happened in the cups. Well, in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, Villa needed an 83rd-minute Andreas Weimann goal to secure the win over Ipswich Town, so that would've gone to a replay. Likewise, Millwall needed an 89th-minute goal to beat Villa 2-1 in the 4th-round loss, so another replay. Nothing conclusive there, Villa did well in one late-match instance and poorly in another.

In the League Cup, things wouldn't have changed that much. The dramatic 3rd-round win against Manchester City is a bit tricky to figure out. If we all remember, things were tied after regulation, so the match went to added time. Had the match ended after 80 minutes, it would have also been tied, so I am okay saying that Villa would have still won. After all, their two goals in extra time would have still happened (even if we take off the last 1/9 of extra time, Villa would have still won 2-3). The 4th round win over Swindon Town would have been 1-2 instead of 2-3, and the Semifinals would have been lost 1-3 on aggregate rather than 3-4.

This got me into one last line of thinking: what if Aston Villa only had to play the first half. The fact that the team can't string together two good halves has been commented on countless times this season. So what if they didn't have to? Same rules, both teams' second-half goals get wiped out. Let's look at the chart:

45-min_copy

And that's 11 points better, bringing Villa to 10th place. Two matches in particular stand out here, and both involved 4-goal second halves. On September 22 at Southampton and December 26 against Tottenham, Villa ended up with losing effort thanks to 4 second-half goals allowed. That's just miserable. Notice, though, that in a few instances, Villa have actually helped themselves in the second half.

As for the cups? Well, Villa would have lost in their first FA Cup appearance, as Ipswich had an 0-1 halftime lead. They would have been knocked out of the League Cup in that third round tie against Manchester City, who led 1-0 at the half.

So what does all of this mean? Well, to be perfectly honest, absolutely nothing. It's all hypothetical and Villa don't live in a world where the rules have changed. But we do actually have some proof now that they have indeed hurt themselves by living in a world in which football must be played for the full 90 minutes. Even in an 80-minute sport Villa would be better off, and if they had the opportunity to play 45-minute football, they'd be a top-half team.

But on a less toss-off-the-results-as-a-joke note, maybe there is some credence to those who have been crying for Paul Lambert to make sure this team can buckle down a bit more late in the match. I'm sure it's not due to a lack of effort - as some on Twitter have posited - but perhaps it's a lack of conditioning, or a sign of the incorrect mental approach to late-match situations. It would probably be better if it were the former, as that can be worked on in training. If it's the latter, I've got no idea how that can be fixed. It may be something that comes from the manager, or it literally may be something in the psyches of the players themselves. I don't usually buy into that sort of thinking, though (though if there is no other explanation, it may have to work). Maybe Lambert can find some way of making Villa a team that can close better. Heavens knows anything would help at this point.

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