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 played a good team on Boxing Day. You can guess the result. (Answer: a 2-1 loss to Brentford)
Yeah, I really don’t know. I can sit here for what feels like the 500th time and write about how Steve Bruce wasted money on Birkir Bjarnason, Scott Hogan, Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury, since it’s evidently clear he has no clue to use them. Or I could write about how, despite having a wealth of attacking talent available to him, Villa have the second-lowest goals tally in the top half. Alternatively, I could rant about how Steve Bruce willingly went into the season with three palatable centre back options, two of them set to turn 34 and 37 during the course of the season — or, similarly, how he has two defensive midfield options, both 33.
But you’ve read that xV before. I’m done with Steve Bruce. It’s evidently clear that while Villa could make the play-off with Bruce at the helm, and they could win promotion via the play-off final, it’s most certainly not likely that they do. He’s managed Villa 12 times this season against top-half teams and won just two. And not only has he won just the two matches, but those wins were against (in my opinion) the two weakest teams in the top half. Ipswich are only where they are the table because of a ridiculous early-season finishing streak, while Preston are probably a top-half calibre side, but were knackered with injury issues when Villa visited.
We’re 24 matches into this Championship season, and about the only time I’ve walked away particularly impressed with Villa this year was in August, when the Claret and Blues won 4-2 over Norwich City, with a Conor Hourihane hat trick leading the way. (Related: Hourihane played that game as a No. 10, which is (coincidentally) the position he played at Barnsley last season, where he was the best attacking midfielder in the Championship. Perhaps you’d think the manager would play Hourihane, a great attacking midfielder, in the No. 10 role, and Josh Onomah, a player whose best performances have come playing as a pivot, in the No. 6 or 8 role, but you’d be wrong!)
I think that’s a problem?
I find it hard to believe that Steve Bruce is the man who offers Villa the best chance at winning promotion this season (which is necessary, given the club’s financial position), and as such, I think the prudent thing to do is to move on and try someone new. It might turn out that the new man is awful, worse, and that Villa finish 12th, well off the pace. But it might turn out that the new man is really good, can actually get the best out of talented players in Hogan, Hourihane, Robert Snodgrass and more (it’s odd how so many players get worse as soon as they move to Villa), and leads the club to a fourth-place finish and a play-off win.
I wouldn’t give Bruce more than a 10 percent chance to get Villa promoted right now (50/50 to make the play-off, a 20 percent chance to win it if he gets here) — I’d rather trade that chance for a manager who might give us a little better chance.
I’m going to make my argument…
…for Dean Smith, the Brentford manager that beat Villa 2-1 last night.
Smith’s record at Brentford has been really good. Brentford currently has the 16th-most-valuable squad in the Championship (according to Transfermarkt’s valuations), yet you could make a good stats-based case that his Bees are a better team than Villa. (Also, they sold their best player to Blues on Deadline Day)
I outlined this some in the last edition of xV, but Brentford typically (a) take more shots than their opponents and (b) take good shots. They’re only where they are in the table because of a poor run of opening results; since their first seven matches, the Bees have lost twice in 15 matches and are playing at the level of a play-off side. I don’t think they’ll chase down a top-six spot, if only because they’re running out of time, but you could make a damn good case they’re among the six best teams in the division.
And it’s right in line with what Smith did in his previous seasons at Brentford: he finished ninth after taking over the 11th-placed Bees at the end of November in 2015, and last year, he placed 10th. His teams have played attacking football, scoring 160 goals in his 98 matches at the helm, and he certainly knows how to get the most out of Scott Hogan, who scored 21 goals in 32 games for Smith at Brentford.
Even if you don’t subscribe to the stats- and xG-based analysis that fuels Brentford as a club, and Smith’s success there, it’s hard to argue he didn’t significantly out-manage Steve Bruce on Boxing Day. Brentford’s side is, no matter how you look at it, significantly less talented than Villa — yet the Bees controlled play and have taken four points from two matches with the Claret and Blues this year.
Perhaps most importantly, two reasons that make me think he’d be willing to make the move: (1) he left Walsall midseason to join Brentford in 2015, which would indicate he could walk away from Brentford in the middle of the year; (2) he grew up a Villa fan.
I just don’t see this happening and working with Bruce, though, and I think it’s time that everyone admits that’s true. There’s nothing worth protecting here, so get him out, and allow the new man to get his business done in January. Smith is my preferred target, but there are plenty of other guys out there the Claret and Blues to get that would, in my opinion, be better options.
I want to get off Mr. Bruce’s Wild Ride.