Let's face it. If we were to choose a "top five moments of the Aston Villa season," three of them would be the victories over Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City. (The other two would be the win over West Bromwich Albion and, quite literally, the moment the season ended.) But while results against the top sides are the ones we remember most, the other results are the ones that really and truly matter most.
Let's start by dividing the Premier League into two uneven groups. In the first group, you've got the league's top seven clubs—Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur. And what separates them from the rest of the league—the bottom 13—is that they enter the season with the goal of reaching Europe and aren't facing the prospect of relegation. This is a big point to make because while it's easy to divide the table into the simple "bottom half" and "top half," it's not really reflective of the situation. Stoke City—who finished ninth last term—are much closer to the talent level of Hull City (who finished 16th) than they even are United or Spurs who finished just two and three places ahead of the Potters, respectively.
And each season, a few teams from that group of 13 seem to differentiate themselves in one way or another from the rest of the pack and last year, that pack consisted of surprise outfit Southampton (8th), the aforementioned Stoke, half-underachieving, half-successful Newcastle United (10th) and Premiership darlings Crystal Palace (11th). Realistically, this is where Villa should be aiming for this year. Most people weren't running out placing bets on Stoke to finish top-half 12 months ago and surely an 11th-placed finish for Crystal Palace would have been out of most Eagles supporters' minds.
But the bigger question is how these teams were able to separate from the other nine minnows—and the answer lies in where they got their points—and how it compares to where Villa got their points.
|Club||vs Top 7||vs Bottom 13||Overall|
|Southampton (8th)||2-4-8 (10 Pts)||13-7-4 (46 Pts)||15-11-12 (56 Pts)|
|Stoke City (9th)||3-2-9 (11 Pts)||10-9-5 (39 Pts)||13-11-14 (50 Pts)|
|Newcastle United (10th)||3-1-10 (10 Pts)||12-3-9 (39 Pts)||15-4-19 (49 Pts)|
|Crystal Palace (11th)||2-2-10 (8 Pts)||11-4-9 (37 Pts)||13-6-19 (45 Pts)|
|Aston Villa (15th)||3-1-10 (10 Pts)||7-7-10 (28 Pts)||10-8-20 (38 Pts)|
Take a look at that right there. When it came to getting results against the top sides, for all of Villa's heroics against the top four, they fell right in line with the teams that occupied those mid-table spots that Lambert's side should be pushing for.
But is there any proof that Villa under Paul Lambert could go on a run like the aforementioned teams to effectively see themselves safe without any matches against the top seven factored in? Actually, yes. There's quite a bit of it. Let's divide Paul Lambert's time at Villa Park into four stretches and see how the results shake out.
|Time Frame||vs Top 7||vs Bottom 13||Overall||Played|
|18 Aug 2012 – 29 Jan 2013||1-1-6 (4 Pts)||3-7-6 (16 Pts)||4-8-12 (20 Pts)||24|
|2 Feb 2013 – 19 May 2013||0-1-5 (1 Pt)||6-2-0 (20 Pts)||6-3-5 (21 Pts)||14|
|17 Aug 2013 – 4 Dec 2013||2-0-4 (6 Pts)||3-4-1 (13 Pts)||5-4-5 (19 Pts)||14|
|8 Dec 2013 – 11 May 2014||1-1-6 (4 Pts)||4-3-9 (15 Pts)||5-4-15 (19 Pts)||24|
In fact, perhaps more than anything, the table above shows a ridiculous statistical anomaly—Villa have more points under Paul Lambert in their middle 28 matches than in the 48 surrounding them. But more importantly, it's worth taking a look at that "vs Bottom 13" column. While results against the top seven remained largely constant (with the exception of the second time period, actually Villa's best under Lambert), results against the bottom haven't, fluctuation from runs that saw a point per match or fewer to a run that saw 20 points claimed out of a possible 24.
And hell, we can even include Villa's hellacious rest of December 2013 and still manage to make the side look pretty good.
|Time Frame||vs Top 7||vs Bottom 13||Overall||Played|
|2 Feb 2013 – 1 Feb 2014||2-2-12 (8 Pts)||11-7-4 (40 Pts)||13-9-16 (48 Pts)||38|
|Rest of Lambert's Reign||2-1-9 (7 Pts)||5-9-12 (24 Pts)||7-10-21 (31 Pts)||38|
Even disregarding the fact that the year-long sample overstates the number of matches against the top seven (16 rather than the aforementioned 14), it shows a Paul Lambert-managed Villa side that took 48 points from a season's worth of fixtures—a figure that would, in fact, have been good enough to manage a comfortable, mid-table finish in either of the seasons in question and that 11-7-4 mark against the bottom 13 was better than the mark Stoke, Newcastle, or Palace posted this season with two more matches to take points from.
So you've probably stared at your screen for long enough that you're wondering, "Sure, these are interesting points and all but what's really the point you're trying to get at?" Here it is:
Aston Villa start out fairly easy—three matches against fellow bottom 13ers, two of which are at home—but are then hit with a run that sees them play six of seven matches against the top sides. A solid start—somewhere between four and six points in those first three—puts Villa in a fine position but above all else, Villa fans shouldn't freak out if the club is in the relegation mix after Spurs pay a visit on 2 November.
That's because Villa's season will be made—or broken—by the 11-match stretch that follows. It sees just one match against a top seven side and leaves plenty of room to pick up points against other bottom sides. If Villa go out and post a 7-2-2 record during the stretch—like we know they're capable of—they could be on 40 points and safe at some point in March, free to relax and push up the table as the year comes to a close. But if Villa go 2-2-7 in those 11 matches—like we know they're capable of—well, relegation could be assured by that same point in March.
It's a big difference and when it comes down to it, Villa's season probably isn't going to depend on getting a result at the Emirates or at Anfield. It's the results at Selhurst Park, the Hawthorns and the King Power Stadium that will likely mean far, far more.
Where do you think Villa will finish? Let us know in the comments!