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xV: Jack Grealish thrives as Villa make it four straight

Aston Villa are creating, and scoring, high-quality chances right now, and that’s a reason to be optimistic about their chances of finishing second.

Aston Villa v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship
Oh hey look, it’s Conor Hourihane and Jack Grealish celebrating a fantastic goal Saturday against Barnsley.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via 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 have won four consecutive league matches once more, this time doing it with a good attacking display against Barnsley where the game was largely decided inside of 20 minutes. Let’s get to it.

Villa keep scoring on really high-quality chances

To me, this is the most encouraging thing about Villa’s recent run of form — in these four wins, Villa have scored 10 times. Each of those 10 goals has come from inside the penalty area, most all of them have been good chances, and there’s been no wicked tight angles among them. Scott Hogan’s opener against Bristol City was a high-difficult chance, but other than that, most of Villa’s recent goals have been from situations where you’d expect them to score. That’s the true sign that the attack is working really well, and the sign that there could be something repeatable here that lets this run of good form last through the end of the season.

When Villa were in form earlier in the season, I expressed concern, because Villa’s good play was often the result of Albert Adomah scoring goals at a ridiculous rate. As soon as those goals dried up, Villa took a dip in form — Adomah didn’t score from open play in any of the five consecutive matches without a win last month.

But this attack now has the look of a well-oiled machine that has a real shot to keep going. It’s no longer reliant on one player to have success, and it’s no longer reliant on abnormally good finishing skill. Villa are producing at least two or three really, really high-quality chances each match, and they’re scoring on enough of them to win.

Villa were a little lucky to not have to defend harder at the end

Steve Bruce’s side finished the day outshot 21-13, including a 12-3 deficit in the second half, which perhaps isn’t great, and Barnsley were probably a little unlucky to not pull one back and get it to 3-2 as the match carried on. You’d maybe like to see Villa put the clamps on that game a little more than they did, and the fact they didn’t was a little odd and a little out of character for the Bruce reign — a common complaint has been how Villa don’t keep attacking when they’re ahead.

That said, I think the game states are important here in analysis, since I think Villa knew that they didn’t need to draw themselves out too much unless the Tykes did peg it back to 3-2. Villa trust Sam Johnstone to make saves, and largely trust the back line to keep high-quality chances to a minimum. While Barnsley had some good chances down the stretch, Villa’s defenders kept them away from really great chances, and it worked out in the end.

Quick side note as it pertains to game states and expected goals. Experimental 361 had Villa behind on the xG chart by game’s end (1.6 for Villa, 1.9 for Barnsley), which is something I totally get and agree with. It doesn’t, however, mean that the defensive performance was poor, because the tactics of the whole match become different if Barnsley did actually score in the second half. Barnsley racked up a lot of xG primarily because they weren’t scoring, and Villa’s tactic of letting them take 10-15 percent success-rate chances made sense independent of each other. In an odd way, Villa’s xG probably looks worse because they didn’t concede.

Jack Grealish bossed this match

Jack had 53 passes Saturday, most on the pitch by a non-fullback, four of which (also an open-play match-high) were key passes, two of which led to goals — one directly, one eventually. He helped win a fifth-minute corner that became Scott Hogan’s brace, and stole the highlight show with his great dribbling to set up Conor Hourihane’s easy finish. Grealish was successful in all five of his attempted dribbles, and could be found all over the pitch, be it dropping back to receive the ball or attacking down the left, right or middle of the pitch. Alongside Hourihane, who does a lot of the same, Villa are attacking so well through the midfield right now.

Credit to Bruce, who’s thrown in a tactical tweak that works wonders, moving Villa from that 4-4-1-1 to a 4-1-4-1 that really plays to everyone’s strengths, most notably Jack’s.

Birkir Bjarnason deserves to keep his spot in defensive midfield

The Iceland international being a revelation in that part of the park has been a very welcome and pleasant surprise, and he’s doing it by keeping things simple. Bjarnason played almost exclusively short passes Saturday (34 of his 38 passes were classified as “short” by Opta) and isn’t getting forward to try and join the attack, with really none of his touches in or around the penalty area. You almost don’t notice him if you’re not paying attention, because he lets the super talented creative players in front of him create, while he hangs back, helps keep the shape at the back, and distributes the ball to guys who’ll help launch the attack. There’s nothing sexy about what Birkir’s doing right now, but it’s the simple move that makes everything tick.