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Expected Villa: One moment decided a pretty even match

Last year, Nottingham Forest stole a point at Villa Park in a largely undeserved 2-2 draw. The Claret and Blues turned the tables a bit Saturday, defeating Forest when a draw might have been the “just” result.

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?

Aston Villa’s “luck” turned around a bit this week, as the Claret and Blues got all three points in a tight match with Nottingham Forest. What should our main takeaway be, though?

2-1 wins: good! Even if Villa didn’t play that great. Let’s get to work.

Sam Johnstone bailed Villa out (alternate title: Villa were maybe lucky!)

If you check the xG charts around the internet, you’ll see the general storyline that Villa were a little fortunate to win all three points: Experimental 361 had Forest the better side, while xMetrics showed Villa with more xG. Either way, the margins were relatively tight, and that a free-kick goal separated the sides is probably pretty fair. Sam Johnstone came up huge late to preserve all three points, though, and it’s something he’s done on a few occasions this year.

While it is nice getting the result, Saturday’s performance itself shouldn’t necessarily make you feel better or worse about Villa’s long-term chances. On the xG charts all year, Villa have (on the whole) been an above-average, but not good, Championship side. That’s exactly what Saturday was. But escaping with a win when you were probably only “good enough” for a draw feels so nice because, well, football is funny like that — and we’ve been on the other end of similar contests recently.

Football is odd, because there are only one or two scoring plays, and typically no more than three or four, in a standard game, a stark contrast to most any other sport in the world. If you’re the “better team” in a basketball game, you’re going to win the game at least 95 percent of the time, probably, just because you get so many chances to show you’re the better team.

But football is different, because most matches come down to just a few good chances. If you don’t take those chances — or if Scott Hogan is standing on the Middlesbrough goal line — your general dominance won’t be reflected in the final score. That’s what happened against Boro a couple weeks ago, and is kind of what happened against Hull City on the opening day.

Over the course of the 46-match season, though, we can assume that (at least to some degree), these results will even out. Perhaps Villa only played well enough for a draw today. But they played well enough for a win 11 days earlier against Boro.

Villa did something I’ve wanted them to do for a while

We talked about this after the Hull City match, where Villa were ahead at the break after a good first half, but sat off to start the second half, were pegged back, but couldn’t find the winner.

That’s not what happened Saturday — yes, Villa went ahead after a good first half, then surrendered the initiative, and soon enough the lead, as the second half got underway, as they’ve seemingly done so many times. But that’s something that, no matter how annoying, is going to happen. You’re going to get pegged back from time to time, and good sides answer.

Villa’s individual skill, by way of a guy named Conor, answered.

Conor Hourihane’s free kick goal, which ultimately won Villa the match, was a big-time moment from one of this team’s most talented players. Never mind that Johnstone needed to make some big saves or that Villa were a little fortunate — they did something that should boost the confidence in the dressing room and in the Holte End. That’s bigger than anything.

Villa should be in the top six at the next international break

Operative word there: “should.”

Aston Villa are just two points off sixth headed into the 10th matchday, and they have what are, by various measures, probably the two worst sides in the Championship this year coming up. Four points should be a requirement, while six probably should happen.

Burton Albion have gotten some results this year, but they’re still probably the worst side in the Championship. The Brewers have taken just 6.7 shots per match, the lowest figure in the league by some margin, and have conceded 18.1 shots per game, second-highest in the league. On the whole, Burton are being dominated week in, week out, but somehow have found a result in the majority of their league matches so far.

And if Burton are the team the semi-advanced metrics call the worst, Bolton Wanderers are the team our eyes (and the table) will tell us are the clear worst in the division. They’ve won two points and scored four goals in nine matches, looking entirely overmatched in the process.

If six points is the haul, it’s hard to see Bruce’s side not being in the top six at the break. That’d be neat.