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xV: Analyzing Hutton’s chance, set pieces and a ‘cup final’

Aston Villa drew away to Birmingham City on Sunday, which both sucks and is kind of funny, given how much yesterday’s fixture meant to Blues supporters.

Birmingham City v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Robert Snodgrass of Aston Villa looks at the Birmingham fans as they throw paper at him during the Sky Bet Championship match between Birmingham City and Aston Villa at St Andrews (stadium) on October 29, 2017 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/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?

For the 10th time in their last 11 league matches, Aston Villa didn’t lose. Unfortunately, they didn’t win either, and it was in the Second City derby. That said, I don’t think yesterday is the end of the world for a Villa destined for bigger things than a derby win at St. Andrew’s.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a fine result

If I were talking about an American sports game, I’d say that Sunday was Blues’ Super Bowl. In England, you’d call it their “cup final.” Either way, the result of yesterday’s match meant a hell of a lot more to one team, and one group of supporters, than the other.

This is not to say that I don’t love beating Blues and don’t care about winning derby matches, because that isn’t true. I hate that Villa weren’t able to pull out the three points yesterday, especially given how poor Birmingham City have been this season. They are not a good team. They are a team Villa should beat home and away. Most importantly, they are our rival.

But at the end of the year, this result will not be the one Villa fans look back on as the biggest of the season, I guarantee it. Aston Villa are a good side, one that’s chasing promotion. There will be key six-pointers that determine whether or not Villa are good enough to finish top two or top six. If Blues play more important matches to their season than yesterday’s, it’s because they’re still in the relegation scrap come springtime.

I care more about whether or not Villa can get a result away to Leeds United on 1 December than I do about yesterday’s result. I’ll say the same thing about Sheffield United’s visit on 23 December, or Bristol City’s trek to Villa Park just over a week later on 1 January.

Yes, I want to win the derby. But for a number of reasons Villa don’t need to win at St. Andrew’s the way Blues need to. And that influences your tactics, personnel and outlook when you have bigger goals on the horizon.

This week in “xG tallies can be deceiving”

I love the work xMetrics is doing over on Twitter, and you should definitely give them a follow if you like this column. But their graphic this week is a perfect example of why this stuff is most valuable alongside context.

Take a look at the bottom right of that output: Alan Hutton accounted for .44 xG, Keinan Davis .11 xG. What’s important is that both players took just one shot — on the same move, in fact — which allows us to say that the model predicted Hutton had a 44 percent chance of scoring on his shot, while Davis had just an 11 percent chance.

Hutton’s shot went straight into the keeper, as it was always likely to do, while Davis beat the goalkeeper only to have his shot hit the crossbar and stay out. I don’t think this is a case of the results influencing my view when I say it was always more likely that Davis was going to score than Hutton.

There’s a lot at play here, the most notable that one chance was taken by Hutton, a fullback, and the other by Davis, a striker. Give the two any chance 100 times, and Davis will absolutely score more often. But there’s also a lot of factors at play. While Hutton was played in by a good through ball (almost always resulting in a high-quality chance), there wasn’t much room to run onto and the box was already fairly crowded, limiting options. Tomasz Kuszczak knows this, and is able to come off his line to take away most of the chance to score. On the flip side, the rebound comes to Davis, who is now able to take advantage a bit of a keeper out of position and defenders scrambling.

The xG charts don’t know this, though — and most importantly, that’s quite fine. Perhaps some day, we’ll have the technology to take account for the player taking the chance and the positioning of the opposition goalkeeper and defender. Until then, though, we have to make do with what we have. It’s part of why (in my opinion) xG is best used in the analysis of long-term trends, not always individual results.

Villa’s final free kick is another spot where the xG can lie a bit

The idea of finishing skill can perhaps best be viewed by how we analyze free-kick takers — players like Gylfi Sigurðsson are known as free-kick specialists, and convert at a higher rate than most players.

Aston Villa are lucky, as they’re a team that has two set-piece specialists: Robert Snodgrass and Conor Hourihane. Either of them can strike a free kick well to score, or do the same to set up a teammate from a free kick or a corner, and it’s an extremely valuable weapon to have.

Unfortunately, both Hourihane and Snodgrass were subbed off before Villa’s edge-of-the-box, last-kick-of-the-match chance came along. In a scrappy, level derby match, I wasn’t a huge fan of taking two of your key set-piece threats off the pitch. Oh well.

Mini preview: This looks a perfect time to visit Preston

Preston North End got off to a hot start this season, pretty much entirely on the success of their defence. They conceded just four goals in their opening 10 matches, a run at the end of which they sat fourth in the table. In their last four matches, though, North End have suddenly started shipping goals. 2-2 draws against Sunderland and Fulham sat either side of the international break, and Preston have followed that up with successive 3-2 defeats, to Wolves and Brentford.

Preston were solid defensively early, but the level of success they enjoyed early on was always going to be a little bit unsustainable. They’ve come crashing back to earth recently, so this might be a good time to pounce.

Someone at Blues should be sacked for handing out projectiles

This doesn’t really fit with the point of xV, but I felt I needed to say it anyway.