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Sherwood’s Villa need good start, festive period in 2015/16

The fixtures were announced yesterday, and I took a look at a path for Villa to safety, a mid-table finish, and a dream European-qualifying campaign.

Aston Villa open next season at recently-promoted Bournemouth, and they’ll need a good start to find success.
Aston Villa open next season at recently-promoted Bournemouth, and they’ll need a good start to find success.
Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The fixtures were released yesterday, which means Tim Sherwood knows (roughly) when he’ll be facing everyone in his first full season as a manager.

While most look at the opening day match and perhaps when our "derbies" with West Bromwich Albion are, it’s important to take a closer look at the calculus of it all — when we play certain teams matters, especially as the narrative of the year goes.

I noticed three things immediately when I looked at the fixtures…

  1. Aston Villa have a really nice start to the season. They’ll need to capitalize early to have a chance of success.
  2. The festive period provides a really, really nice run. From mid-December through mid-February, Villa have nine straight games without playing one opponent who finished in the top nine last season.
  3. The computer didn’t doom us with five straight games against last year’s top five. Thank goodness.

Being the stats nerd I am, I wanted to take a closer look at our matches; how important is a fast start? When will Villa need to be in top form to pick up points, and when will they need to scrape out some results against tough opponents?

I broke our season into five stretches, ranging from six to 10 matches long. I’ve tried to track a route to three different milestones for Villa next year — a simple 40-point total to avoid relegation, a 50-point one to keep Villa nice and safe in the middle of the table, and a 65-point one that’d likely put Villa into the Europa League.

The last one isn’t realistic, and hopefully relegation battles are behind us, so I’ll spend most of my time analyzing the mid-table track, which is where the club’s goal should be in 2015/16. Without further adieu, let’s get started…

Matchdays 1-6

Fixtures: Bournemouth (a), Manchester United (h), Crystal Palace (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester City (a), West Bromwich Albion (h)

This is a very, very nice start to the season. We’ve got United, who finished fourth, and 10th-placed Palace as our only two upper-half games. Bournemouth away should be an interesting start to the season, and the six-match run ends with a West Midlands derby.

If Villa are to finish in the middle of the table, I’m looking at grabbing three wins and a draw in this run. You accept a loss to United (because it’s Villa) and early in the year, it’s unlikely the club won’t trip up in one of the other five winnable matches. A draw should pop up in this run too, making 10 points a realistic target.

I’ve gone for 8 points if the club are to reach 40 points — the same number we managed from these fixtures last year — which should be the worst-acceptable case from this run, and a wholly-realistic 13-point stretch if the club are to seriously contend for Europe.

Regardless, we should expect the Claret and Blues to get around 20% of their points for the campaign in these first six matches.

2014/15 Season Avoiding Relegation Mid-Table Finish European Qualification

In the stretch

Season to date

2-2-2 (8 pts)

2-2-2 (8 pts)

2-2-2 (8 pts)

2-2-2 (8 pts, T-7th)

3-1-2 (10 pts)

3-1-2 (10 pts, T-4th)

4-1-1 (13 pts)

4-1-1 (13 pts, 2nd)

Matchdays 7-16

Fixtures: Liverpool (a), Stoke City (h), Chelsea (a), Swansea City (h), Tottenham Hotspur (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (a), Watford (h), Southampton (a), Arsenal (h)

Alright, this is a bit rougher. Villa see five of the "big six" clubs in this 10-match stretch, plus the four clubs who are arguably the class of the "rest of the league." You could make a good case Villa play nine of the league’s 10 best clubs in these 10 games.

It makes Watford at home a must-win under any circumstance. For our mid-table target though, Villa need to show an ability to beat the clubs around them — a couple wins against, say, Stoke and Swansea at home should be plausible. Throw in a couple draws, and you’ve got my 11-point stretch.

Watford should still be down as a win if you’re trying to avoid relegation, but you’ve still gotta pick up points at all times. If Villa are going to be a European side again, they’ll need to get another big win in this stretch. It’s a chance to prove something.

2014/15 Season Avoiding Relegation Mid-Table Finish European Qualification

In the stretch

Season to date

2-0-8 (6 pts)

4-2-10 (14 pts)

2-2-6 (8 pts)

4-4-8 (16 pts, 15th)

3-2-5 (11 pts)

6-3-7 (21 pts, T-10th)

4-2-4 (14 pts)

8-3-5 (27 pts, 5th)

Matchdays 17-25

Fixtures: Newcastle United (a), West Ham United (h), Norwich City (a), Sunderland (a), Crystal Palace (h), Leicester City (h), West Bromwich Albion (a), West Ham United (a), Norwich City (h)

It’s do or die here. All these teams pretty much suck.

The issue? Villa have been terrible during the festive period recently. That absolutely has to change this year.

I’ve gone ahead and given Villa five wins and two draws here for our mid-table campaign. It’s a tough ask, but very, very doable. It’d put the side safe with 13 matches to play, which would be really, really nice.

For avoiding relegation, the results still need to come. I’ve given us three wins and four draws here — you still can’t lose these games. For the European run, I’ve got us going 6-2-1; gotta be almost flawless here. It’d put Villa third.

Regardless, the end of this stretch should be Villa’s highest table position of the year. Hopefully we’re entertaining the dream of Europe.

2014/15 Season Avoiding Relegation Mid-Table Finish European Qualification

In the stretch

Season to date

3-3-3 (12 pts)

7-5-13 (26 pts)

3-4-2 (13 pts)

7-8-10 (29 pts, 12th)

5-2-2 (17 pts)

11-5-9 (38 pts, 8th)

6-2-1 (20 pts)

14-5-6 (47 pts, 3rd)

Matchdays 26-32

Fixtures: Liverpool (h), Stoke City (a), Everton (h), Manchester City (a), Tottenham Hotspur (h), Swansea City (a), Chelsea (h)

Here’s where the letdown should happen. There’s not a single "easy" game in this run. It’s gonna be important that Villa grind out results here. I’ve gone for a win and two draws — not asking for too much — to keep our mid-table pace.

If Villa’s performing at a miraculously-high level, this will be the do-or-die stretch for Champions League qualification. Like that’s gonna happen. Looking to avoid relegation, you’ve again still gotta find a win somewhere here.

2014/15 Season Avoiding Relegation Mid-Table Finish European Qualification

In the stretch

Season to date

2-0-5 (6 pts)

9-5-18 (32 pts)

1-1-5 (4 pts)

8-9-15 (33 pts, 15th)

1-2-4 (5 pts)

12-7-13 (43 pts, 10th)

2-2-3 (8 pts)

16-7-9 (55 pts, 7th)

Matchdays 33-38

Fixtures: Bournemouth (h), Manchester United (a), Southampton (h), Watford (a), Newcastle United (h), Arsenal (a)

This is a pretty solid run-in. United and Arsenal away will be difficult, but everything else is winnable. You’d like to think Villa can get wins against the newly-promoted sides, and pick up a draw at home against either Southampton or Newcastle.

If a European push is to be completed, make it a win against Southampton or Newcastle, with a draw against the other. If avoiding relegation is still the goal, you’ll need the same 2-1-3 stretch to see it out.

2014/15 Season Avoiding Relegation Mid-Table Finish European Qualification

In the stretch

Season to date

1-3-2 (6 pts)

10-8-20 (38 pts, 17th)

2-1-3 (7 pts)

10-10-18 (40 pts, 15th)

2-1-3 (7 pts)

14-8-16 (50 pts, 10th)

3-1-2 (10 pts)

19-8-11 (65 pts, 5th)

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for seeing it all out. There’s more to our fixture list than first meets the eye, and it means we’ll have an incredibly important opening to the year, and an even more important middle of the season.

Consider this: If Villa get off to a slow start and have a poor festive season, it could quickly mean the difference between a 40- and 50-point season, simply on short-term form alone, not long-term class. You’ve gotta be good, but you’ve also gotta be good at the right times.

Sherwood needs to get his business done early to give the squad a full preseason — a slow start could put the club in a precarious position throughout the year.

Hopefully this has been of some value to you; at the very least it’s been of use to my maths-thinking brain, so we’ll consider it a win regardless.

Up the Villa!

P.S.: You’re welcome for using "maths," Britain.