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Expected Villa: Quality finishing propels AVFC to first win

Conor Hourihane struck twice from outside the box and André Green hit a beautiful goal, but it’s hard to say Villa deserved anything less than three points against Norwich City on Saturday.

Aston Villa v Reading - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 15: Conor Hourihane of Aston Villa in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Reading at Villa Park on April 15, 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?

This week, we’ll take a look at Villa’s 4-2 win over Norwich City on Saturday, a much-needed three points to take the pressure off Steve Bruce.

Four goals? Who knew you were allowed to score four goals in a football match?

Aston Villa looked great yesterday, so this is a happy xV.

Villa took their chances extremely well to finish off the match

By the time Conor Hourihane’s 22nd-minute shot bulged the back of the net, Villa had more than created the chances reflective of a 1-0 advantage. Over the remaining 68 minutes, the Claret and Blues largely kept going forward — but it’s hard to argue Norwich defended poorly enough to have “deserved” three more concessions.

André Green’s goal didn’t come off a great chance; rather, it came from a moment of brilliance. Hourihane’s second came via a deflection. Even if you ignore the potential handball involved in the build-up for Villa’s fourth, Norwich could certainly feel hard-done by the fate their defenders ultimately faced Saturday.

Both the xG plots from 11tegen11 (2.04 xG for Villa) and Experimental 361 (2.05 xG) generally agree with this — while we look at Villa’s wealth of solid first-half chances and think the game could’ve been 3-0 within the half hour, it also easily could’ve finished 2-2.

It’s worth noting, this isn’t necessarily a negative; good finishing is always a positive and, to some level, is dependent on skill. Even if Green rarely scores that type of goal, that he’s a threat will change how fullbacks defend him. Centre halves might be more aggressive trying to close Hourihane down at the edge of the box. These are positives.

Villa were the better team and well deserving of three points. But maybe it should’ve been 2-1 or 3-1, not 4-2.

Villa did well to control the game in tight situations

Aston Villa led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 on Saturday. Each time, they controlled the match and found the back of the net to open up a two-goal advantage.

After an encouraging start that ended with Hourihane’s opener, Villa settled the match down until Green worked his moment of brilliance. Norwich were afforded just one shot between the 22nd minute and half time, a Marco Stiepermann chance from well outside the penalty area. That’s a plus.

Like against Hull, Norwich’s first goal in the second half came after a relative period of quiet; each team had just one shot in the opening 15 minutes of the second half before Josh Murphy got behind Alan Hutton to score the goal to pull it back to 2-1. Villa responded by playing some of their best football on the day; Keinan Davis had a big chance in the 63rd and Glenn Whelan missed off the ensuing corner, before Hourihane’s deflected strike restored the two-goal lead in the 68th.

And once Norwich had pulled it back to 3-2 in the 79th, there were five shots the rest of the match: all taken by Villa.

The Claret and Blues did not see out the three points because they defended terribly well, nor did they see out the three points because they continued to dominate the match. They just won the periods where they needed to shut down Norwich, and that’s encouraging in itself.

Villa didn’t just dominate in the shot count

They also dominated the shot map, too. Of Villa’s 20 shots Saturday, 13 were taken from inside the penalty area — and they were high-quality chances, too; Villa scored just twice from within the 18, but Davis came close with his header, and it’s a wonder how Elmohamady or Green didn’t add another in the dying embers. The Claret and Blues converted the perfect football chance, too: a cross played on the ground, from within the penalty area, that evades defenders. Tap-in. Easy. Goal, Conor Hourihane.

Let Conor Hourihane get forward and he will prosper

I’ve been talking for months about how Villa need to play tactics that suit their best players. For everything that Mile Jedinak and Jonathan Kodjia mean to this team, neither of them are the best player at the club — that’s Hourihane.

There’s a reason Hourihane was such an attacking threat from midfield at Barnsley, and he was absolutely brilliant in yesterday’s win. He was all over the ball (his 59 touches were joint-most for Villa), and was consistently in attacking positions. It’s telling, perhaps, that Hourihane perhaps had two better chances than a pair of the ones he converted. Yes, he was a little lucky with the deflection on his second goal, but the Republic of Ireland international sure looked the part.

When Villa make a concerted effort to play attacking football, Hourihane is the biggest weapon in the Championship. This club have been crying out for a goalscoring midfielder for years. We have him.

Keinan Davis didn’t score, but he controlled the match

Though Hourihane netted three times, one could make a good case the full debutant deserved man of the match honours — Davis was a revelation, and a key part of why Villa bossed the match. His 45 touches meant he was far from isolated, and of course, it was his beautiful assist that created Hourihane’s no-doubt goal to open up the scoring. 11tegen11’s pass map echoes this; the striker was often moving flank to flank to be part of the build-up play, and his passes and chances accounted for a greater share of Villa’s xG than even Hourihane.

It’s far from what I expected in his full Championship debut, but Davis was seriously impressive, showing flashes of the type of talent that made Christian Benteke so dangerous. While it was nice when the Belgian striker was banging in the goals, he was at his best when he was used as a key playmaker in the attack, too — it’s part of what made that 4-3-3 Tim Sherwood ran so effective; Tom Cleverley and were able to bomb forward, making runs off Benteke’s hold-up play and receiving well-weighted balls.

Davis also provides much more of a replacement for Jonathan Kodjia, too, who is also the type of striker more involved in the build-up than someone like Scott Hogan. This isn’t to say Hogan should be out of the picture for the foreseeable future (in fact, I think Hogan could play really well off Davis), but that it would mean something different tactically if they did.

That incredible, silly stat is no more

Since he arrived at B6, Aston Villa had not won a league match without Mile Jedinak in the XI. That is, thankfully, finally over.

Steve Bruce’s biggest tactical issue at Villa has been how dependent his style of football has been on Jedinak and Jonathan Kodjia; the club rarely find success without either of them, and rarely play to the skill sets of anyone else in the team. If Kodjia can integrate back into the side — you know Jedinak should be an upgrade on Glenn Whelan — and they continue to play like this, there’s no reason Villa can’t already be in the promotion play-off slots by the end of September.

It’s time for Steve Bruce to make it stick

I feel like I’ve seen this before; notably in the two away matches following a good, energetic opening-day performance against Hull City. Aston Villa won’t necessarily always be able to play this same style away from home, where opponents will be more interested in taking the initiative, but there’s no reason lessons can’t be taken forward when Villa head to Bristol City for a Friday night showdown. Bruce cannot return Villa to the too cautious, negative football they played at Reading; instead, he has to walk into Ashton Gate expecting his team to score at least twice.

Where that performance should be replicable week-in, week-out, though, is Villa Park. Aston Villa’s home form was already one of the better ones in the division last year; if it can improve, and if Villa play like that every week it will, it can be a huge asset.

Ultimately, though, the season will hinge in part on whether or not Villa can not be terrible away from home. Bristol City provide a good chance to gauge the progress.

Cardiff City are good, Ipswich Town might be a fluke

Four matches in, two Championship clubs are a perfect 12 for 12: Cardiff and Ipswich. The Bluebirds have genuinely controlled every match they’ve played, and are fantastic value for their top-of-the-table position. Neil Warnock has them playing great football, imagine that.

The Tractor Boys, on the other side, are finishing at an abnormally high clip.

Ipswich strike me as the type of side that’s a little like Huddersfield or Reading from last year: they haven’t looked good on the shot chart so far, but they’ve looked good on the score sheet. If they can keep stealing results, though, perhaps they can ride that early luck to the Premier League, just as the Terriers did last season.