With ten matches remaining in their season last year, Aston Villa had conceded 53 goals in league play already. That, coupled with the fact that they had only scored 26 goals, put the club in a shockingly precarious position. They would have to rely on a run-out that saw them outscore opponents 21-16 and gain 17 points to eek out survival.
The fact that the club are currently in a much more comfortable position after having played 28 matches (31 points and in 11th as opposed to 24 and in the drop zone) is attributable partially to the fact that the bottom of the league is far worse this year than it was last. But it is also at least partially attributable to the fact that the defense has improved significantly over their 2012-13 form in the 2013-14 season. I figured that it would be worth a while to examine the defense in almost precisely the manner that we looked at the attack on Tuesday. If you read that article, the charts that follow will look familiar, but instead of looking at results in matches based on goals scored, we will look at goals allowed.
To give us a baseline from which to work, here are the goals allowed in every match this season (bottom line) plotted against the rolling total for the season (top line):
The one thing that stands out in comparison to the similar chart plotting goals scored is that this one has a much steadier climb. Gone are the long plateaus followed by sudden leaps, replaced here by a line with a pretty steady slope. That seems to be the hallmark of this year's defense: they will allow goals, but very rarely will they meltdown and allows tons of them.
In fact, the defense have been significantly better at spreading their quality out than have been the offense. We noted that, with the attack, 74% of their goals had been scored in 29% of their matches. The same isn't true of the defense:
If we use the same categories (goals allowed in 2+-goal matches) we see that the defense have allowed 84% of their goals in 54% of their matches. That is much more in line with what we would expect. The numbers would likely be even closer if if weren't for the fact that in 25% of their matches, the defense haven't allowed a single goal. Compare that to last season in which they netted 5 clean sheets for the whole season, and you already see the vast improvement. Also striking is the lack of matches in which they have totally collapsed. Only two matches fall into that red portion of the ring that represents 3 or more goals allowed, and both of those were stopped at 3. By this point last season, the club had already permitted eight such matches to occur, allowing 33 goals in those affairs.
(As a side note: dear God last year's defense was terrible.)
The question remains, though, how are Aston Villa as a whole faring as compared to the defense. By now, hopefully, you're used to this chart. It shows the number of matches played when allowing a certain number of goals, and then you can click the buttons at the top to see the number of wins, draws, and losses in those matches as well as the total points gained from them:
My very favorite part of that is the fact that Villa have three points when giving up three goals. It's my very favorite part because it allows me to remember that the 4-3 West Brom match was a thing that happened, and that fills me with joy. In general, though, this chart shows that the most reliable way for Aston Villa to get points is for the defense to let nothing past them. In some ways, that makes sense: when you allow no goals you will get plenty of points. But it is hardly a sustainable method of success. With 25% of their matches being clean sheets, we can't expect Villa to stay up based on results there alone.
More striking, to me, is what this chart says about that which it doesn't show: the attack. In 13 matches, the defense have allowed 1 or 0 goals. In the Premier League this season, teams have averaged 1.34 goals per match. Keeping a club below the league average should be seen as an unequivocal success. Do that all of the time, and you should win a vast majority of your matches. But in those 13 matches, in which 39 points were available, Villa have only taken 20, or just over 50%. That conversion rate is buoyed by the fact that when you allow zero goals, the worst you can do is a draw. If we look instead at only the 1-goal matches, Villa have only taken 7 of an available 18 points. All of this shows a defense doing its job and being let down by an anemic offense.
Before we go, I figured I would show you one last thing. Below is the goals allowed chart that you saw first plotted with the goals scored one from the first article. I've also included the team's differential over the season for reference. There really isn't much to take from this, but it's nice to have it all in one place:
So what are we to take from all of this? It strikes me as if Aston Villa have built a club that is on the cusp of sustained success. The defense is clearly coming together, and could leverage the return of Jores Okore and depth added over the summer window to become one of the league's best. The attack, on the other hand, clearly needs some help. There is something to be said about the finishing ability of Aston Villa's strikers, but it seems from watching this club as if the biggest problem lay in getting the ball to them. We remember the times that Gabby Agbonlahor, Christian Benteke, and Andi Weimann miss terribly, but those are mostly seared into our brains because they happen so rarely. It stands to reason that if they were getting the ball in a good position with more frequency, the misses would still be there, but so, too, would the goals.
The way to make this club better going forward is to build on the solid foundation that is already there. Provide cover for the defense in case of injury by bringing in more top-rate defenders. Paul Lambert has shown that he can find these players at good prices. Use the savings from the defense - since, again, not a lot needs to be done - to pump cash into the midfield. This club has an attacking problem, it does not, it seems to me, have a striker problem. Get the front three the ball, and they have proven that they can score.
And when Villa have that, as they have in several occasions this season, they can be one of the best teams in the league. That's what makes this club so frustrating. It's easy to see how close they are to breaking through, but until a few changes are made, that may be all that we get.