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Expected Villa: A step in the right direction away from home

Aston Villa picked up their first away point of the season Friday night, and it was a decent performance. But the numbers say it’s likely Steve Bruce will need to find a little more out of his side on their travels to reach the top six.

Bristol City v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Joshua Onomah of Aston Villa is tackled by Marlon Pack of Bristol City 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?

This week, I’m mostly changing direction, talking about some more big-picture stuff as we hit the first international break. Villa were better on the road in the 1-1 draw at Bristol City, but is that performance good enough for a side aiming for promotion? Where can Villa claw the points back to get toward the top of the table?

That was certainly better than the first two away matches, but also certainly worse than Villa’s two home league matches. Let’s get to business.

Josh Onomah is a stud

I love this kid. So much. Yes, he was a little lucky to score given the deflection, but his performance was man-of-the-match deserving even without the goal. He joint-led Villa with 64 touches Friday night — a great feat for a midfielder who’s getting forward — and completed 35 of his 42 passes.

Over the last couple matches, we’ve seen a lot of what makes Villa’s midfield options so entertaining. Conor Hourihane was wildly influential going forward last Saturday in the 4-2 win over Norwich City, and Onomah shined Friday. Robert Snodgrass, who can be utilized in the middle, will only add to the fun attacking options, as will Jack Grealish eventually once he returns from injury.

Onomah’s going to be a fantastic player for Spurs, perhaps as early as next season. Hopefully Villa can play against him sooner rather than later.

Villa’s three-at-the-back experiment didn’t work

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t against the idea of going with a 3-5-2 against Bristol City. Unlike a lot of supporters, it seems, I don’t think Villa should necessarily expect the same tactics to work away that work at Villa Park, and if played well, the 3-5-2 is a really smart system to play on the road. The issue was that, well, Villa really didn’t play it too well.

Villa’s best attacking play this season has come when the fullbacks have overlapped with the wingers — we’ve seen it all season long, and we saw it in the second half against Bristol City, when James Bree and Neil Taylor were active in the final third, helping Villa create chances. Playing a 3-5-2 negates that benefit, though, and it showed: Villa took just one shot in the game’s opening half hour, against Bristol City’s four attempts.

Worse, though, was that Bruce was forced into a tactical change at halftime he really shouldn’t have needed to make. A change in tactic was fine, but moving to 3-5-2 was ultimately too stifling and dramatic — and it hurt Villa when they could’ve used a chance to get Albert Adomah on late, for instance.

How poor can Villa be away and still go up?

If we’ve learned one thing about this Villa side, it’s that they’re going to earn the lion’s share of their points at Villa Park. The Claret and Blues had one of the better home records in the division last year, garnering 44 points, but one of the worst road marks, winning just 18 points away from home.

Three questions must be posed, then: What’s the absolute minimum Villa have to do on the road to qualify for the play-offs? How few points can they win away to finish in the top two? And is Friday’s performance good enough for either?

Last year, two sides in the division — Brighton & Hove Albion and Reading — won more than 50 points at home, while Newcastle United, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town all finished in the top six with 47 or 48 home points; only Fulham (38) didn’t follow the trend of racking up the points at home, and only Norwich City (49) finished in the top six in home record, but not in the overall top six. Given how Villa held serve at home last year, and how Villa have started this season in B6, I don’t think 50 points at Villa Park is an unrealistic assumption. It certainly seems unrealistic to expect Villa to contend for promotion if they take much less at home.

So then we’re trying to figure out a target for the away fixtures. Who were the top six sides in the away table last year? Newcastle, Fulham, Brighton, Wednesday, Huddersfield and Reading. Oh.

Away form is crucial, but there was some variation in how good each of those club’s form was. Reading won just 32 points away from home, but had the division’s sixth-best road form (their goal differential away was also -15). Again, with how poor Villa have been away over the last seven years, really, let’s try and achieve the minimum.

If the play-offs are the target, 80 points on the year would almost certainly be good enough, and if 50 can be won at home, you’re looking at just needing 30 points. With 20 away matches left, and just a single point won away so far, you’re effectively talking about needing 1.5 points per away match. That feels reasonable.

But if automatic promotion is the goal, Villa are going to need around 40 points away from home, which seems very unlikely, given just Newcastle and Fulham reached that target last season. With how Villa have played away so far, this feels anything but reasonable.

I don’t think it’s an unfair statement to say that Bristol City and Villa were on pretty level footing Friday night at Ashton Gate, nor do I think it’s unfair to say each result — a Villa win, loss or the draw — was about equally likely to occur given how the match played out. If that’s true, Villa would win one-third of the time and draw another third, earning four points for every three away matches played (1.33).

Ultimately, if Villa are to seriously contend for automatic promotion, the away performances need to significantly improve; the Claret and Blues need to be able to significantly outplay opponents on their travels, not simply match their hosts’ quality. But Friday night was certainly a step in the right direction, and dependent on the home form, it could be the type of away performance that could be good enough to get you into the top six.

September will make or break Villa’s season… again

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Villa start a Championship campaign with high expectations and loads of talent, but sputter a little early, entering the international break with just five points from five matches.

Here we are again. September is a big month, and Villa failed miserably here a season ago: Roberto Di Matteo went 0-5-1 between the early September international window and the October international window, and as a result, got the sack — and all in all, the fixtures weren’t terrible during that stretch, with just one of those six contests (Newcastle United) coming against a side that ultimately contended for promotion.

This time around, the story is very similar. Let’s take a look at the fixtures for the month of September:

September Championship fixtures

Date Opponent
Date Opponent
9 Sep Brentford (H)
12 Sep Middlesbrough (H)
16 Sep Barnsley (A)
23 Sep Nott'ham Forest (H)
26 Sep Burton Albion (A)
30 Sep Bolton Wanderers (H)

There’s really no such thing as an “easy” run in this division, but this may be the most favourable month Villa are going to have this season. Middlesbrough (who Villa also have an EFL Cup home tie with on 19 September) are expected to contend for promotion and Nottingham Forest have been good to start the season. But it’s not realistic to expect Villa to win each of the other four matches in this period — Brentford, Barnsley, Burton and Bolton are all more likely to be in the relegation fight than the promotion one.

If Villa can go on a good run of form in September — let’s say 14 points — they’ll be right back in the thick of things, on 19 points in 11 matches (play-off pace). If they have another poor second month, though, their promotion hopes will be left hanging by a thread.