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xV: What if Villa are one of the Championship’s best away sides?

Aston Villa snatched a draw at Leeds United on Friday night, and have now lost just one of their last eight away matches. Could Villa’s away form be the difference in winning promotion this season? Signs point to yes.

Bristol City v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Steve Bruce, Manager of Aston Villa during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Aston Villa at Ashton Gate on August 25, 2017 in Bristol, England.
Photo by Harry Trump/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?

Henri Lansbury rescued a point for Villa at Elland Road on Friday night, and it was probably a deserved point. Let’s get to the analysis.

Quantifying the value of depth

Aston Villa were down 1-0 last night, largely out of ideas, and headed for a first defeat in nearly a month. Despite having an injury-riddled squad, Steve Bruce was able to bring on Henri Lansbury and Jack Grealish. The change altered the match, got Villa on top, and resulted in Lansbury’s equaliser.

It is difficult to quantify the value of having good depth. You hope you never have to use it — the absence of injury is a good thing — and it’s easy to get away with using injuries as an excuse when your lack of depth hurts you.

What Villa have on the rest of the Championship field, however, is squad depth. Hopefully Friday night’s match implores Steve Bruce to use it a little more often, too. Villa’s starting XI was playing its fourth match in 14 days Friday night, and that toll looked a little too much on some of the guys. He’s handcuffed in some areas due to that injury list — Keinan Davis and Glenn Whelan must start — but he could’ve made a move to put Josh Onomah, Conor Hourihane or Robert Snodgrass on the bench to get fresher legs on the pitch. Snodgrass will have to make way for Millwall’s visit in a week, due to yellow-card accumulation, but it will be interesting to see if Bruce starts Lansbury or Grealish when Millwall comes to B6.

Villa will probably win an extra 5-10 points this season solely because they have better bench options than anyone else in the league. That’s a lovely position to be in.

Let’s talk about the away form

So, I’m generally of the opinion that yesterday’s result — a draw away to a side that’s probably going to finish in the top six or thereabouts — is a pretty good point to pick up. But I got this response on Twitter from George Templeton, who I really enjoy discussing Villa with, and figured it was worth looking into:

How good really are Villa playing away from home? Is it good enough? Over the last five years (10 automatically promoted sides), you can largely bucket the teams into one of two groups:

  • Teams whose great home form makes up for shortcomings away
  • Teams that pick up points at the same pace home and away

If we exclude Leicester City in 2013-14 (who were just really good both home and away en route to 102 points) and Hull City in 2012-13 (who weren’t that good, but snuck into second on just 79 points), our split is decent.

Better at home than away

Team Home Points Away Points
Team Home Points Away Points
Brighton 16-17 54 39
Burnley 15-16 51 42
Middlesbrough 15-16 53 36
Burnley 13-14 51 42
Cardiff City 13-14 51 36

Just as good away as at home

Team Home Points Away Points
Team Home Points Away Points
Newcastle 16-17 48 46
Bournemouth 14-15 46 44
Watford 14-15 46 43

Side note, this was a really neat thing I found:

Through 10 home and 10 away matches this season, Villa more resemble that first group of teams than the second — the Claret and Blues have won 21 points at home, but just 15 on the road. That form, however, is consistent: Villa have taken the fourth-most points in the league at home, and the fifth-most on their travels (despite a couple ugly losses in August). Right now, Villa are neither a good enough home side, nor a good enough away side, to secure a top-two spot.

I’m going to make a case I never thought I would: Villa can win promotion because their away form will be among the best in the league. The Claret and Blues are 4-3-3 on their travels this year, but let’s take a look at how those results break down.

Wins: Barnsley, Burton Albion, Preston North End, Queens Park Rangers
Draws: Birmingham City, Bristol City, Leeds United
Losses: Cardiff City, Reading, Wolves

Notice something here: Villa have already travelled to the teams placed 1st, 2nd, 5th and 8th in the table, and will visit Derby County (6th) in a couple weeks. That’ll leave a second half of the season where Villa’s most challenging away trips will be to Sheffield United (who might fall off) and Middlesbrough (who I expect to surge), with potential trickiness afoot at places like Brentford, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday, all of which have good teams but are each underachieving.

Of Villa’s three clunkers of away performances (which are also the three defeats), two of them were in the opening 10 days of the season, when everything was still broken away, and the third came away to a side that’s talented enough to finish mid-table in the Premier League right now. Given the remaining 13 away fixtures, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume Villa could get, say, 27 points on 8 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses. That would leave Villa with 42 points away, needing 48 at home to get to 90. That would also require 27 points.

As long as Villa keep taking care of business away to sides like Ipswich Town, Norwich City and Hull City, I think the away form’s going to be fine.

Villa are really good at preventing chances that aren’t from set pieces (or, Villa have a set piece problem)

Villa conceded from a corner yesterday, and would have conceded from a free kick too if not for a silly offside. This is not good. Teams that can nick results on set pieces are often the most successful in this league, and teams that are unable to defend set pieces can ultimately have disappointing conclusions. Set pieces are an area where a team can pick up a few tenths of an expected goal per game, and right now, Villa’s defending on them leaves a lot to be desired.

At the same point in time, this xG chart sure is some level of a defensive performance:

Look at that! Leeds had no significant chance from open play Friday night. That’s pretty neat.

We’re getting better as a fan base, I think

I was very surprised to log onto Twitter dot com after the conclusion of yesterday’s match and see a nice level-headed “good fight-back, good point” type of post from, well, like every Villa fan I follow. I don’t feel like it’s too long ago that Villa fans would’ve still found a way to moan about the poor first-half performance, despite rescuing points. Good stuff, all.