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 were 3-0 winners at Barnsley on Saturday, but it didn’t really feel like they played that well. Is that true? Did Villa kind of stumble into a great match?
Any concerns about tactics aside, it’s really, really nice to win a match 3-0. Especially away. I have nothing else to say here, so…
Let’s talk about those tactics
I’m going to preface this with a thought: I don’t necessarily like how Villa played Saturday. But I’ll defend Steve Bruce anyway, because I think there’s a good rhyme and reason to what he’s done.
When looking at things from a stats- or xG-based perspective (which, hey, this column does!), teams should fundamentally try to do two things: minimize the number of good chances your opponent gets, and maximize the number of good chances you take. There are multiple different ways to do this tactically, but it’s the fundamental thing that should link any plan: you should either (a) try to limit opposition chances or (b) force them to come from distance, while in attack, you should be trying to create high-probability opportunities.
Deserved or not, it’s hard to argue Villa didn’t do this Saturday.
The xG models will all differ a little bit, but here we see proof of a solid result for Villa — they created significantly better chances than Barnsley did over the course of the game, and in particular, created two incredibly good chances to score in the first half: Albert Adomah’s tap-in for the opener, and his spot kick as the first half drew to a close. Those two shots were worth 1.36 xG alone. That’s really good!
And if we look at Barnsley’s shot chart there, they didn’t have too many chances from dangerous positions, as the Tykes only managed two shots from in front of goal — that’s in contrast to Villa’s four from open play.
This is the fundamental point of Bruce’s tactics: limit Barnsley’s chances, take the air out of the match a little bit, and count on your superior individual talent to win the match. Villa don’t need to dominate matches, or even carry their fair share of the ball away from home, in order to get results, simply because their talent is often going to be much better than their opponents’. Yes, Villa were a little fortunate that Ahmed Elmohamady was able to get in the way of Harvey Barnes’ 31st-minute chance, but all in all, ceding possession didn’t hurt them. It doesn’t have to.
Villa won the match because their superior talent stepped up, namely by way of Keinan Davis and, of course, Albert Adomah, creating the big chances Villa were good enough to convert. These tactics, however, do raise a certain concern:
I think the concern has to be if playing this way will lead to consistent results. Sometimes individuals don't show up.— Joel Sheldon (@JSheldon23) September 16, 2017
Joel’s very right in my mentions here: When Bruce employs tactics like he did Saturday, he’s counting on a couple of his talented attack-minded players being “on” enough to force issues. That happened Saturday, and it won Villa three points. Whether or not this is a viable long-term tactic, however, comes down to its repeatability — will Adomah or Robert Snodgrass or Jonathan Kodjia or someone else always be there to step up? The tactic requires it.
But for as long as this team struggles to break opponents down that sit back and play for a point, perhaps ceding the initiative is the way to go.
Of course, Barnsley made errors, too
I think part of the reason the 2-0 halftime score felt so undeserved was that it’s easy to look at Villa’s two goals and conclude they were responsible for very little of the success from either of them. Adomah’s opener came off what was, admittedly, a goalkeeper error, and the penalty Villa won was a bit of a cheap one to give away.
Nevertheless, though, it was these guys’ skill that forced the mistakes in the first place, and that’s something that should be noted. No, Villa probably won’t be fortunate enough to get a tap-in and a penalty out of similar moves every time going forward — but the general “cause problems and force mistakes” tactic could prove handy.
Sometimes, you just have to settle the match down
We all hate it, and for good reason: Villa go ahead, 1-0 to the good, and sit back. After long enough, the inevitable happens, the opponent equalizes, and Villa never sniff the goal again.
It’s very true that you cannot sit off and invite pressure for the remainder of the match and expect to win at the end of the day, especially when you score inside 20 minutes to take the lead in the first place. But let’s also remember the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s match: it was kind of haphazard, with both teams generating a lot of half-chances.
That isn’t the type of match that favours the leading team, and it’s part of why I wasn’t too concerned with Villa trying to settle the match down after going 1-0 ahead. Largely, it worked — and not just because, you know, it actually worked on the scoreline. Barnsley only registered two shots in the 25 minutes between Adomah’s first and second goals: a 30th-minute chance off a corner, and the aforementioned 31st-minute chance blocked well by Elmohamady. That’s it.
When you have a lead away from home, it’s reasonable to expect your opponent to have a renewed interest in getting on the front foot. I’d rather be defensively strong, at least in the 10-15 minutes immediately after the go-ahead goal, than getting into an up-and-down footrace. It’s frustrating, and we’d all like Villa to dominate, but that’s not likely.
Villa are a couple results away from being back in a good position
After getting all three points Saturday, the Claret and Blues are on 10 through eight matches. It’s not a great mark, but it’s very salvageable — especially considering how nobody’s running away with the league yet. Cardiff City, Leeds United and Wolves are all on 17 points, and sixth-place Sheffield United sit just five points above Villa. We know the talent is here to go on a run, and it shouldn’t be too much to ask the Claret and Blues to get seven points from their next three matches: Nottingham Forest (H), Burton Albion (A) and Bolton Wanderers (H).
Bolton are probably the worst team in the league, and Villa shouldn’t have an easier contest than that one. Between Forest, a mid-table side at home, and Burton, a lower-half side away, you’d like to think a win and a draw is manageable. In doing that, Villa would be on 17 points after 11 matches, not too far off the 80-point pace required for the play-offs, and in with a shout of being back on automatic promotion pace by the festive period.
Yet Bruce still hasn’t done enough to prove himself
The most frustrating thing about Steve Bruce’s tenure at Villa is that they haven’t consistently been anything. Villa have been up and down — sometimes looking great, other times looking poor — throughout nearly every part of his time at B6, and sooner rather than later, he needs to get the form together over a consistent, multi-match period.
One match, and one result, does not vindicate Bruce. It does not prove he is the man for the job moving forward. It does not mean he should suddenly be backed unconditionally.
I want the man to do well, because success for Steve Bruce means success for Aston Villa. He still needs to sell me he’s the man who can do it.