With Everton losing this weekend, it means that Arsenal would really have to screw up not to get a spot in the Champions League. Realizing that the top four are likely set, I began thinking about how well Aston Villa have performed against them this year, and it's a rather incredible run of form. In 7 matches against the top four sides (we still have Manchester City to play, remember), Aston Villa have gotten 10 points, or ~29% of their total for the year. That includes points from all four of the top teams, and means an average of 1.42 points per match.
As a general rule, you would expect a team to perform worse against the top of the table than they do the bottom. And if we look strictly at the bottom, that's true. Against Cardiff City, Fulham, Norwich City, and Sunderland -- the current bottom four -- Aston Villa have taken 14 points, or 40% of their season total. Better at the bottom than the top!
But that leaves a baffling problem in the middle. The eleven teams between Arsenal and Sunderland have only given Villa 11 points this season. Against the teams 5-15, Paul Lambert's side have an abysmal record of 2-5-13, with a goal differential of -22. Here's a table showing Villa against those three tiers of teams:
If Aston Villa had been able to perform against those middle teams like they did against the opposite ends of the table, we'd never be talking about a relegation fight whatsoever. The real question at hand is: why does the problem exist in the first place? And that's a question for which I don't have an answer.
That said, it's readily evident that if Aston Villa are to improve upon their dismal recent seasons, they will need to do so by improving their success rate against the middle of the table. Those are matches that Aston Villa should be winning, or at the very least they ought to be drawing with some regularity. If the club could turn only five of those losses into points -- say, two wins and three draws -- they'd currently be sitting at 44 with three to play.
A modest change in fortunes against clubs that are beatable is the difference between the relegation-scrapping Villa we've become familiar with, and a respectable mid-table team poised for future success.