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Expected Villa: The numbers behind a shocking performance

Aston Villa were terrible Saturday in Cardiff. This week, it’s certainly a case where the numbers confirm what our eyes saw.

Aston Villa v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28: Steve Bruce manager of Aston Villa looks on prior to the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Bristol City at Villa Park on February 28, 2017 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

If you missed it last week, 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 fell 3-0 in Cardiff yesterday, which was very suboptimal. Do the numbers agree, though, with how dire the performance looked? (Hint: the answer is “yes”)

I had a couple paragraphs written saying nice things about how Villa played in the first 15 minutes. And then I just deleted it all because who cares about that?

Assume the data come from WhoScored unless noted.

What the hell was Steve Bruce’s plan? (alternate title: Villa have a Gabby Agbonlahor problem again)

One of the thing I love about pass maps is how they do a good job of showing a team’s shape and positioning over the course of a match. So ignore the xG timeline for now and just look at the positioning from 11tegen11’s pass map.

Who was playing left wing for Villa? Based on last week’s setup, and where Josh Onomah, you know, plays, it seems realistic to assume that Gabby Agbonlahor was supposed to be wide left, Onomah in the middle of the park, and Henri Lansbury in that role behind the striker he played against Hull City.

But especially in the first half, that’s nowhere near what happened. Agbonlahor took 13 touches in the final third during the first half, but only four of those were on the left wing (and three of them came in quick succession). It’s not like he was playing in the middle of the park either, though — he took just one of those 13 touches between the edges of the penalty area. More often than not, Agbonlahor was drifting wide to the right, which is a problem, given Villa actually played with a well-defined right winger, be it Ahmed Elmohamady or Albert Adomah following the former’s injury.

Agbonlahor was slightly better positionally in the second half, but during the first 45 minutes, he spent more of this time clogging up the right side of the pitch rather than actually playing the position he was (presumably) assigned to play.

That absence meant Josh Onomah had to move out wide to the left — he had a high volume of touches down that side, more so in the first 45 — which helped contribute to Villa’s poor attacking play.

Point blank: Steve Bruce needs to try something different here. Against Hull, Agbonlahor’s inability to be involved in the play was ultimately a big part of why Villa tailed off in the second half and didn’t get three points. Yesterday, his inability to actually play a position was a big part of why Villa’s attack barely got going.

The worst bit about it, though, is that — among all the complaining about his squad — Bruce actually bought a player well capable of starting on the left side of midfield: Birkir Bjarnason. For as long as André Green’s out, Steve, use him.

Don’t let his opening-day goal fool you: Agbonlahor cannot be a long-term option for Villa as a left winger. If the experiment’s allowed to continue, Villa’s attack is going to continue to sputter.

On the other side, Villa’s defence was absolutely shocking

I’ve seen few worse defensive performances from Villa teams over the years, especially given how entirely uninspired this one looked. No side should ever be surrendering 12 shots on target in on match, and that becomes even more true when you have John Terry in your back four.

Let’s make no mistake, Terry was terrible yesterday, and his performance exposed a lot of the issues with his arrival at the club. Yes, I love the signal of intent the club displayed by signing Terry, and yes, I absolutely support him being here (and even being first choice!).

But Villa erred big-time in two areas: (1) by selling Nathan Baker and (2) by handing Terry the captaincy as soon as he walked through the door.

Terry’s performance Saturday raises doubts over whether or not the centre back still has the talent to be successful, even at Championship level — and it certainly wasn’t the type of performance befitting of a captain. He consistently looked a step behind, and given Christopher Samba looked poor against Colchester United in the EFL Cup on Wednesday night, well, it could be a long season.

As an aside, this is yet another year where Villa have discarded a centre-half pairing that worked, or at least was working, to try something different. This year, it’s bringing Terry in for Baker; a couple years back, it was replacing Ciaran Clark and Jores Okore with Joleon Lescott and Micah Richards, the dumbest decision that’s ever been made at Villa — and somehow still wasn’t rectified at any point during that disastrous season.

Singling out Terry is far from the truth, though — because not only did Villa allow a high volume of shots, they allowed a high volume of quality chances. Cardiff took three of their shots from inside Villa’s six-yard box and, shocker, they scored two of their three goals that way. Another nine of the Bluebirds’ 15 chances came from other spots within the penalty area, including…

Aston Villa need to just release Alan Hutton

Hutton was terrible yesterday. Terrible. Sam Johnstone was forced to face five shots from his immediate right just outside the six-yard box, and really, the goalkeeper did well to limit those five shots to just one goal. Kenneth Zohore shot three times from the area far too easily, with Johnstone having to stand tall to deny him each time, before Nathaniel Mendez-Laing (who, mind you, was playing in League One a few months ago) bagged his second goal on the fourth attempt Johnstone faced from his right.

And while Mendez-Laing’s first goal was scored from the left, not the right, it was chiefly Hutton at fault there, too. The fullback scuffed what should’ve been a simple clearance, keeping Villa pinned in their own half.

Hutton’s negative impact doesn’t stop at the defensive end, though — each match, he’s taking a few touches in and around the penalty area, which only leaves Villa woefully out of position when he inevitably gives the ball away; Cardiff has an early counter in the second half off this type of situation.

The worst part about Hutton’s inclusion, though, is that he’s presumably in the XI for defensive purposes — James Bree is the better player going forward. But it’s hard to imagine the young right back (who, again, Bruce bought) being anything but an improvement over a player who simply isn’t good enough.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’d rather play with 10 men than with Alan Hutton on the pitch.

Scott Hogan will get his goals soon, I think

Alright, I lied: a bit of optimism here. Hogan took just three shots Saturday, but they were all from good positions — two of them in front of the goalmouth, including a 1-on-1 with the keeper, and the other left of the goal in the penalty area. The issue with Hogan, though, is he’s not the type of forward typically involved in build-up play — he requires good service, and as long as Villa have no coherent attacking plan, Hogan’s going to be largely worthless.

It’s no surprise that Hogan stopped getting chances once the rest of the attack went to hell.

Don’t be fooled by the Newcastle comparison

I saw a few people talk about how Newcastle United started their season off last year with two defeats, which was true. But the signs were there that the Magpies would turn things around in due course — they were probably the “better side” in each of those two losses, to Fulham and Huddersfield Town.

They certainly didn’t look as poor as Villa did in Cardiff.

Wolves look extremely good

Our neighbours to the northwest have opened their season in damn near the best way possible — a deserved home win over Middlesbrough, followed by a deserved away win at Derby County.