Purely in terms of points earned and their place in the table, Aston Villa is right about where they would have been expected to be at the beginning of the season. The current pace over the course of a full season would put them at 47 points, good enough for a top half finish in every season since 2009-10. Clearly the number of games played makes that figure predictive of approximately nothing, but it does indicate that some legitimate progress is being made. But how Villa has gone about reaching their current record is odd to say the very least; standout wins over Arsenal and Manchester City have obscured the fact that they've managed just three points from four games at home, while disappointing results against Newcastle and Hull City took a great deal of the shine off of managing zero points from strong performances against Chelsea and Liverpool.
There are certainly explanations for the somewhat schizophrenic nature of Villa's form that make sense; their danger on the counterattack makes them more dangerous against teams that like to get forward in the attack, while their own vulnerability to the counter and difficulty breaking down defenses neutralizes some of their strengths at home. And though Villa certainly look like a team that's put their relegation flirtations behind them-knock on wood-they're not going to be able to take the next step until they find a way to be a less one-dimensional attacking team.
But in this case, that might not be a necessity. The Toffees come to Birmingham with just one loss on the season, a 3-1 away result to Manchester City. After beginning the season with three consecutive draws against less than stellar competition, Everton rattled off three straight wins (one of those coming against Chelsea) and bounced back from the City loss with a win over Hull last weekend. In all, it's been a good start to the season and to the Roberto Martinez era. Table position is far less important than grouping at this point in the season, and as of now Everton is four points clear of the mid-table pack and has largely kept pace with the league's front-runners.
Still, the Toffees haven't done much to separate themselves from any of their opponents thus far. Everton's patient style of play can lead to dominance without the gaudy numbers, but it's still reasonable to point out that all four of their wins have come by a margin of just one goal. The Toffees will almost certainly dominate possession in this game (Villa's opponents typically do) and they're likely to score at least a goal or two (ditto). But Villa's shown themselves to match up quite well against teams that do what Everton does. A high-pressure midfield designed to harass the opposition into mistakes that lead to counters can be effectively neutralized by teams that play a more direct style, but the Toffees aren't likely to take that approach. It's a bit of a tactical gamble on Villa's part to allow their defense to play under pressure for the majority of the game, and Everton will create chances. But if Villa execute, they'll do the same.
Roberto Martinez likely recognizes all of this, and it's going to be interesting to see how this game ends up looking. He and Lambert are both very interesting tacticians, and for that reason alone this should be an intriguing matchup. And ultimately, it's one Villa has a decent chance to win. With Christian Benteke (presumably) back to full fitness, the team is more or less full strength, and though Everton has a clear edge in terms of talent the gap isn't so severe that it can't be overcome with a strong performance. It is of course entirely possible that Romelu Lukaku goes insane and repeatedly victimizes Villa's back line, but of all the early-season battles with presumed top-six sides, this one likely favors Villa the most. That's not to say that a win is the most likely outcome, but three points for Villa wouldn't be any kind of a shock. Maybe they just need to pretend they're at Goodison.