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xV: Breaking down Villa’s path to automatic promotion

If Aston Villa are to seriously compete for automatic promotion this season, they’ll need a good five-match run starting Saturday.

Aston Villa v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: dSteve Bruce, manager of Aston Villa looks on with Colin Calderwood during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Sunderland at Villa Park on November 21, 2017 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Matthew Lewis/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 drew Millwall 0-0 at home Saturday, raising concerns about the squad’s ability to run down Cardiff City for an automatic promotion spot. This week, I look into that and draw up a game plan for Villa to get there.

I’m gonna be honest here: I don’t really want to write about Saturday’s game. It’s part of why it took until Wednesday for me to get this out — you don’t need a stats column to tell you that Villa were bad and that a home draw to Millwall is bad.

I got this tweet Saturday, and it prompted an interesting idea: what does that breakdown of points look like? How can Villa get from 37 points to 90 in a 25-match run? What’s the best way to track how well Villa are doing?

I think there’s some merit to classifying the remaining Villa matches in one of four groups, and setting a points target for the matches in each group. If we know, “hey, Villa could use eight points from these six matches,” it helps us better evaluate when a draw is a good or a bad result (see Saturday). The groups, broadly, are as follows:

  • Greatest difficulty (home matches against top teams / away matches against good teams)
  • High difficulty (home matches against good teams / away matches against average teams
  • Medium difficulty (home matches against average teams / away matches against bad teams)
  • Low difficulty (home matches against bad teams)

The Championship table is really nice right now, too, as it creates some natural delineation to help us classify teams as good, average or bad. There’s a four-point gap between Norwich City in 16th and Millwall in 17th, so we use that. There’s no point gap between Middlesbrough in 8th and Ipswich Town and Preston North End in 9th and 10th, but I’m going to draw the gap after the top eight anyway, mainly because I think there’s a talent gap between Leeds (7th) or Boro and Ipswich or Preston. Visiting Elland Road is more difficult than visiting Deepdale, as we’ve seen.

Wolves and Cardiff City get grouped as “top” teams for obvious reasons.

In setting these targets, I’m making the assumption that 90 points will be enough for automatic promotion, which I think is a fair number to operate from for now.

Low difficulty (target: 3-1-0, 10 points)

Fixtures: Barnsley (H, 20 Jan); Burton (H, 3 Feb); Birmingham (H, 11 Feb); QPR (H, 3 Mar)

The Claret and Blues really need to win these games. I’ve given them an allowance for one slip-up — mostly because of the derby match with Blues — but maximizing points in these matches is crucial.

Medium difficulty (target 5-0-1, 15 points)

Fixtures: Preston (H, 20 Feb); Sunderland (A, 6 Mar); Bolton (A, 17 Mar); Hull (A, 30 Mar); Reading (H, 2 Apr); Millwall (A, 6 May)

Villa don’t have many home matches left this season against mid-table sides, with only Preston and Reading visiting in 2018. That means Villa are going to have to do a good job of being road warriors against bad opposition. I gave Villa the chance to slip up with the odd loss through here, but I don’t really feel good about it.

High difficulty (target 6-2-2, 20 points)

Fixtures: Sheffield Utd (H, 23 Dec); Brentford (A, 26 Dec); Bristol City (H, 1 Jan); Forest (A, 13 Jan); Fulham (A, 17 Feb); Wednesday (A, 24 Feb); Norwich (A, 7 Apr); Leeds (H, 14 Apr); Ipswich (A, 21 Apr); Derby (H, 28 Apr)

This high difficulty group is the danger zone for me, because it’s wholly possible this total needs to be more than 20 points. If Villa drop more than five points from the low and medium difficulty groups, it has to be made up here.

6-2-2 against this run of fixtures is reasonable, but it will require a good start — and it’s why we’ll know fairly early on whether or not Villa’s promotion push is realistic (more on that later).

Highest difficulty (target 2-2-1, 8 points)

Fixtures: Derby (A, 16 Dec); Middlesbrough (A, 30 Dec); Sheffield Utd (A, 27 Jan); Wolves (H, 10 Mar); Cardiff (H, 10 Apr)

If Villa are going to make up the gap, they need to beat Cardiff home and get at least one win away to Derby, Boro or Blades. You can’t get this done without stealing some points off the top sides.

Villa need to spring into action now

We will know in the next few weeks whether or not Villa are serious contenders for automatic promotion. The run of Derby (A), Blades (H), Brentford (A), Boro (A), Bristol City (H) is the toughest five-match stretch Villa will face all season, with all five matches in the high or highest difficulty categories. If the Claret and Blues can get through this run at, say, 3-1-1 (or even 2-2-1), they’ll be in with a chance. But if Villa go 1-2-2 over the next five, any automatic promotion hope is effectively gone.

What these figures hopefully show is that results should be evaluated in the context of other matches. Villa’s recent point away to Leeds, for example, was a good result because the Claret and Blues had played well recently and were picking up points. The Millwall result, on the flip side, is a bad one, unless Villa are able to make up for it with good performances through to the new year — in that case, we’ll look at it as a blip on the radar, an odd result, not a dooming one.

We can understand this going forward in the context of Saturday’s match. If Villa draw away at Derby, I think it’s a good point, but it heightens the necessity to get three points at Boro a couple weeks later. If Villa win neither match, the pressure is really on for that trip to Sheffield United.

But hopefully the other thing that’s understood is how slim the margin for error is the rest of the way. To get to 90 points, this allocation supposes Villa will need to go 16-5-4 — that’s winning nearly two-thirds of their matches, when they’ve failed to win half this season. I think we all know the talent is here to do it, too.

Let’s see if they get it done.