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xV: Johnstone came up big, but Villa played well regardless

Sam Johnstone had to make the game’s biggest save, sure, but Villa were still more than deserving of the full three points against Fulham on Saturday.

Newcastle United v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 20: Villa keeper Sam Johnstone in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Newcastle United and Aston Villa at St James' Park on February 20, 2017 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a post-match column on the stats behind Villa’s results.

One of the reasons I really love looking at football through a mathematical lens is that it allows us to sidestep our conventional, results-based bias to take a look at how the match actually played out. Did it play out exactly how we saw? Which moments are emphasized?

Aston Villa returned to winning ways Saturday, scoring midway through the first half and early in the second to defeat Fulham 2-1. Villa were the better side, too, even if the game’s biggest moment was a Sam Johnstone save.

We can praise Johnstone while also noting Villa ‘deserved’ to win on the performance of the outfield players

I don’t want any of what’s coming to downplay how good of a save this is, and how good Sam Johnstone’s been this season:

As the author of the tweet suggests, I think there’s a very good case to be made that Johnstone has been the best shot-stopper in the league this year. He’s certainly a big part of why Villa are sitting fifth in the table right now, and without him, the team probably have a couple fewer points.

At the same point in time, I’ve seen a lot of the narrative from Saturday boil down to “Johnstone bailed Villa out, without that save we would’ve drawn.” While yes, it is true that without this save it’s 2-2, that storyline completely downplays how good of a match Villa played. They did not win this match because Johnstone bailed them out, but they won the match because they created significantly better chances than Fulham, and each team converted those chances at a relatively normal rate.

The xG charts really liked Villa in this one — Experimental 361 had Villa ahead 2.1–0.7 on the xG count, while xMetrics showed Villa with the edge by 1.48 xG — and it’s easy to see why in one stat: Villa took 11 shots from inside the box, while Fulham took just three.

Yes, Johnstone made a really good save. But it’s also worth noting that it’s the only save he did make all day. Villa controlled the match, got good shots, and forced Fulham to take bad shots. That had as much, if not more, to do with the win than one individual save from Johnstone. This was a really, really damn good performance from Villa against a good team. The type of performance that promotion-winning sides make. Let’s not let one moment skew that truth.

Villa were extremely dangerous from set pieces

This is neat and good and valuable.

Part of the reason Villa had so much action inside the Fulham penalty area on Saturday? Set piece delivery.

Between Robert Snodgrass and Conor Hourihane, Villa now start two players who can either whip a great ball in, or go for goal and score themselves. The former was extremely evident Saturday.

Obviously, John Terry’s first goal for the club gets the highlights, but it was just one of three set-piece headers Villa got inside Fulham’s six-yard box. Villa got extremely dangerous penetration, and especially when they end up in scrappy matches, having that ability to serve up a great ball for Terry or James Chester or Jonathan Kodjia or Keinan Davis is going to be awesome.

Of course, on the flip side, Glenn Whelan gave away a really clumsy free kick that turned into Fulham’s lone goal right before the half. That chance was likely going nowhere and wasn’t resulting in a high-percentage chance for the Cottagers — Whelan had help, and needed to trust it rather than barging in and giving up a really nice free kick opportunity.

Albert Adomah is not going to keep scoring at this rate…

…but we should enjoy it while it lasts!

I came out in support of playing Adomah down the left early in the season (mostly because Ahmed Elmohamady seemed to be the first name on Steve Bruce’s team sheet), and that hunch seems to have been correct. We saw the Albert Adomah who assisted a lot last year, but he also spent a lot of his career chipping in with goals, too. He’s doing that for Villa now, and I think it’s in part because when he gets the ball on his primary right foot this year, he’s doing it as he cuts toward goal. Inverted wingers are neat, especially when they’re good.

That said, Adomah has scored five times on just 12 shots. That is not sustainable over the course of a 46-match season. Even if his conversion rate settles in around 20 percent, though, it’d mean some more big goals from the winger — and having him and Hourihane scoring to supplement the strikers is huge.

Villa need to take this match to Blues on Sunday

It’s the Second City Derby, which is a great occasion. The combination of the rivalry and Villa being away from home means you might throw form out the window here but, please, don’t, Villa.

Birmingham City are a bad football team. They are just a point above the drop zone headed into this weekend, and are deservedly there: in Experimental 361’s last set of scatter graphics (before this weekend), they were rated the third-worst team in the league when accounting for xG.

I don’t care that you’re away. I don’t care if derbies are often cagey. Get out on the front foot early and often and beat. them. down.