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xV: Breaking down Villa’s impressive win at Preston

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Aston Villa ran out 2-0 winners over Preston North End on Wednesday night, and Villa are nearly to the next international break with a top six-spot in hand.

Preston North End v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
PRESTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 01: Keinan Davis of Aston Villa and Alan Browne of Preston North End in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Preston North End and Aston Villa at Deepdale on November 1, 2017 in Preston, 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?

Aston Villa got back to winning ways Wednesday night, downing Preston North End in a 2-0 result. In this edition of xV, I look at Robert Snodgrass’ set piece skills, Keinan Davis’ influence off the scoresheet, Villa’s very solid defence and our favourite topic of conversation, Steve Bruce.

Robert Snodgrass is an elite set-piece taker

Look at this ball. LOOK AT THIS BALL:

What a beautiful corner. It’s placed right at the edge of the six-yard box, hitting Chester in stride — and that placement is huge, as it prevents the goalkeeper from reaching it, but lets Chester attack the ball near the goal. You’re rarely going to work a better chance from a corner, and the xMetrics xG chart agrees, giving Chester’s chance .55 xG. For the average team, you’ll score on a corner once every ~30 tries. But Villa are likely to score more often than that, given they can either have Snodgrass or Conor Hourihane standing over most every corner. And if Villa can do that, they’ll start making defenders think about whether or not they want to concede a corner — something that can pay even bigger dividends when an opponent makes a mistake.

Keinan Davis has been very, very good

…and it doesn’t even have to show up on the scoresheet. For most strikers, two goals in 10 starts is a lacklustre tally, and Davis will probably be the first to tell you he wishes he had a couple more goals. But more than anything, he influences the game and opens up space for his teammates to run into — it’s no surprise that Villa create really good chances with him on the pitch. Let’s go back to the goals and look at Villa’s second this time:

Look at that run from Keinan Davis. He’s wide on the left wing when Josh Onomah intercepts the poor pass, but he heads right for the perfect position — he’s far enough away from Onomah that one defender can’t mark both, but near enough to leave the entire right side of the pitch open. That run keeps his defender, as well as the two trailing ones, from being able to drift wide, and Snodgrass runs into that wide-open area for his goal.

This is also another spot where the xG doesn’t tell the whole story. On an xG chart, this isn’t that high-quality of a chance, since it comes from decent distance. But we know it’s a good chance because Snodgrass has no defenders between him and the goal.

Villa defended really, really well today.

Aston Villa only outshot Preston by a 9-8 margin last night, but this was certainly a spot where the simple shot count lies to you.

This is truly elite stuff from Villa’s back four, which a small trip-up against Wolves aside, has been absolutely fantastic during this 12-match streak where Villa have lost just once. Sam Johnstone was never forced into a big save because Preston were left to just one chance from a particularly dangerous position, a header from open play. There’s a reason why neither xMetrics (.2 xG for PNE) or Experimental 361 (.5 xG) saw this as an undeserved result, and it’s the quality of Villa’s defence in limiting big Preston chances.

The third sprint is nearly over, and the marathon comes soon

Villa are doing alright this period, with seven points through four matches. A win against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday would give the Claret and Blues 10 from this five-match run, which is the exact pace you want to be on for automatic promotion.

The opening stint was really poor from Villa, and the club took advantage of a weaker slate during the second one — but more than anything, Villa have put themselves in a good position heading into the four-month marathon that awaits them after this next international break. Perhaps more importantly, Villa have turned into the type of team that seems particularly well-suited to a long run of games; not only is the side relatively deep (none of Jonathan Kodjia, Jack Grealish, Mile Jedinak or Neil Taylor were in the XI today, for instance), but it’s also shown an ability to get results through (a) a variety of goalscorers and (b) without some key players. Kodjia still hasn’t scored from open play, and Jedinak still hasn’t started a match, yet here Villa sit, in fifth place.

The ability to get results with different personnel, using different tactics, and from different game states is incredibly important. Villa can get points using both a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, and they can get points in both ugly matches and matches where they rush forward in a display of attacking prowess. This is good, because the Championship is a diverse league with a lot of different styles.

As Villa supporters, we like to have referenda on Steve Bruce after every result it feels — win, lose or draw — and I’ll admit that I’ve stirred the pot a little bit at times. He’s done extremely well these last couple months, though, and while we can debate whether that’s because of him or his hand being forced (see how Albert Adomah and Conor Hourihane ended up in the XI), you certainly can’t debate that Villa are getting the necessary results right now. I think there’s some question about consistency of getting a good performance, but in some aspect, the consistent absence of bad performances might be more important over the stretch of a long, 46-match season. At that level, it’s hard to argue Bruce isn’t doing his job well, then; Villa have really only played poorly once (Wolves) since August, and that may well have been more of a function of the opponent’s quality performance than anything else.

At the end of the day, I’ve been critical of Bruce in the past, and do feel there are probably other managers out there that could have Villa further up the table by more consistently playing attacking football. But what he’s doing right now is working pretty well, and it’s gotten Villa into the top six after a rough start. If this general form holds up, Villa will spend the next 31 matches engaged in a battle with Wolves and Cardiff City for automatic promotion. I’m looking forward to that, if it happens. At the very least, though, I think there’s better places to focus our attention as supporters than getting in silly arguments over whether or not the guy whose side has lost once in 12, has won six of eight, and has his team in the top six and climbing the table is the right man for the job.