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Expected Villa: Is automatic promotion still feasible?

Aston Villa have just seven points from their first seven matches, and it feels like déjà vu at B6. What are the chances Villa can turn it around and still chase down an automatic promotion slot?

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 12: Scott Hogan of Aston Villa looks on during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Middlesbrough at Villa Park on September 12, 2017 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/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?

Villa were held to a second consecutive 0-0 draw at Villa Park on Tuesday night, especially frustrating given Middlesbrough were down a man within five minutes of the opening whistle.

So, here’s the thing: I’m not going to waste my time analyzing a match where Villa had a man advantage from inside five minutes until Henri Lansbury decided to be an idiot. Against a 10-man side, Aston Villa created significantly more shots and had some great chances they didn’t finish. You already knew that. You don’t need statistics to answer that.

Analyzing how a side does in an 11v10 match is, largely, pointless, especially from a statistical point of view. We can sit here and criticize tactical decisions made by Bruce, but at the end of the day, showing you xG stats or delving into much anything else is without significant merit as we look to draw long-term conclusions about the quality of Villa’s play.

On that note, I instead present to you one question, about the season as a whole:

What is the point of no return?

Last year as Villa fans, we all saw and met what was the eventual point of no return, as ultimately, 10 points from 11 matches to start the season proved to dig a hole too big to get out of. Ignoring the final five lame-duck matches to close last season, Villa earned 48 points from their first 30 matches under Steve Bruce, a 74-point pace when extrapolated to the end of the season — perfectly fine to be a play-off contender most years, but only if you keep it up over the course of the season. Ultimately, Villa would have required 81 points to pip Fulham to sixth place (78 if you would’ve beat the Cottagers late in the season to do it), which would have required 71 points from 35 matches.

That is, effectively, automatic promotion form (~2 points per match), and as it played out, was always going to be a tough task for Steve Bruce. Villa seem to look destined for that point again; too far back a quarter of the way through the season, forcing impeccable form the rest of the way to even qualify for the play-offs.

Instead, let’s talk about where Villa are today: on seven points, seven matches into the season. How many sides have gotten off to this poor of a start, yet still finished in the top two at the end of the season? How many claw their way back to sixth place or better to qualify for the play-off?

I pulled results from the first seven matches for each of the last 20 teams to (a) go up automatically or (b) qualify for the play-offs from this division, then plotted them. Is automatic promotion still possible? Yes, but Villa need to get a move on it.

Points after 7 matches, teams promoted automatically from Championship, last 10 years
Only two sides in the last 10 years have won automatic promotion after starts similar to Villa’s, Bournemouth in 2014–15 and Reading in 2011–12.

That data point on the far left is Reading, who won just seven points from seven fixtures to start their 2011–12 Championship-winning campaign. The one next to it is Bournemouth, who gathered just eight points from seven to open the season in 2014–15. We’ll use these two clubs as a bit of a case study.

Eddie Howe’s Cherries got straight back into the promotion mix pretty quickly after matchday — take a look at their form over the next 10 matches:

A.F.C. Bournemouth form, matchdays 8–17, 2014–15 season
Bournemouth quickly got back into the promotion hunt after a slow start in 2014.

That loss on matchday 10 was Bournemouth’s last until January, and the Cherries sat top of the table as the new year rung in; they didn’t waste much time getting their form together.

The 2011–12 Reading team, however, was a bit of a different story. The Royals continued to sputter early in the season that year, leaving it up to a brilliant second half of the season to win promotion as champions — Reading won 22 of their final 29 fixtures after notching just five in the opening 17 contests.

Reading form, matchdays 8–17, 2011–12 season
Reading, on the other hand, continued their slow start throughout September, October and November in 2011.

After that loss on matchday 17, Reading still sat 14th in the table. They wouldn’t place in the top six until matchday 23, and didn’t hit the top two until matchday 36.

The automatic promotion hope isn’t quite gone yet, but we’re nearing the point where it will be difficult. Bournemouth started to turn their form around by the end of September in their title-winning season, and Reading’s slow start six seasons ago forced them to play at an astronomical clip down the stretch. Villa are certainly capable of that, yes, but there’s little evidence that Bruce can be the guy to get them out of that hole.

There’s not much more optimism to be had in the play-off stats, where just two teams starting with fewer than nine points have qualified in the last five seasons — though it must be noted, Villa aren’t far back from a pack of teams that will probably produce a couple of promotion play-off sides.

Points after 7 matches, teams qualifying for promotion play-off, last 5 years
Sheffield Wednesday were on just six points two years ago after seven matches, but still went on to qualify for the play-off, while Watford’s seven-point opening run in 2012 cost them automatic promotion.

Ultimately though, a form turnaround has to come soon for Villa, whether that comes through the current manager or a new guy. Realistically, the board are going to give Bruce the chance to see this run of fixtures in September out, especially with must-win clashes against Burton Albion and Bolton Wanderers, perhaps the two weakest sides in the division, on the horizon.

If the board are to retain Bruce past the end of the month, however, he will need to show actual, tangible progress in his trickier matches, away to Barnsley and home to Nottingham Forest. In addition to taking the three points from each of the relegation favourites, Bruce must win one of the other two matches and, ideally, get a draw in the other.

However, the results shouldn’t be the only thing that matter as we evaluate Bruce the rest of this window — if Villa are winning, is it deserved? If Villa are able to get some results of the 1-0, grind-it-out variety against inferior competition, Bruce is simply papering over the cracks, not fixing the problems that have Villa in this position to begin with. The October/early November slate is much more difficult, and will require good performances to expect really any results: Wolves, Fulham, Birmingham, Preston, Wednesday. Those are three current top-six sides, Fulham (who we know have the talent), and Blues, who are not very good (but it’s a derby match).

What evidence is there, then, that Villa can actually play well enough to earn eight or nine points over that next five-match period? They’ve only truly outclassed an opponent once this season (Norwich City) and have only had one other match against an 11-man side they were clearly better than, Hull City.

Villa must not only look for signs of progress on the scoreline over the next four matches, but the club must look for progress on the pitch and the development of a proper attacking mentality. The promotion dream is not quite dead, no, but it will require consistently good performances for the majority of the remaining 39 matches, ones that are built on actually being better than the opponent, not simply relying on good goalkeeping from Sam Johnstone or wonder strikes from Jonathan Kodjia.

If, between now and the end of the month, Bruce cannot show the ability to do this at least three times against four clubs that are inferior in talent than his, he needs to go. I would contest he needs to anyway, given Villa have not consistently put in 90-minute performances at any time of his tenure (perhaps except March of last season), but also concede the board will not do anything now.

Time is ticking on this club, not just for this season, but for the long term. A resolution is needed, sooner rather than later.