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xV: Villa ring in the new year with their best performance yet

Aston Villa scored five — yes, count them, five goals — on New Year’s Day against Bristol City and, suddenly, everything looks good again.

Aston Villa v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 01: Conor Hourihane (R) of Aston Villa celebrates with team mate Robert Snodgrass after scoring their fifth goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Bristol City at Villa Park on January 1, 2018 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by David Rogers/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 won 5-0 over Bristol City and, yeah, Villa were as impressive as the scoreline would suggest. More of this, please.

What a new year for Aston Villa! If Steve Bruce’s resolution was to start actually playing fun, attacking football in 2018, well, it’s already paying off, my man. That, against Bristol City on New Year’s Day, was exactly what most supporters have been clamoring for since Bruce arrived in 2016. The full potential of the attacking talent amassed at the club was finally on display, and hope has been reignited for the automatic promotion push.

It’s crazy what happens when you give Jack Grealish AND Conor Hourihane freedom to create

Look at my guys there. If you’ve been following this column for a while, you know how much I love Hourihane, and if you’ve followed me for the past couple years, you know I love Grealish. And if you’ve watched these guys play, it’s evidently clear that they’re at their best when they’re able to have the freedom to truly create — that’s not something that’s always happened for Hourihane at Villa.

It happened Monday, though, and it was beautiful. Both Grealish and Hourihane are on the ball, making plays, all over the pitch. They’re dropping back if they have to in order to spark an attack; they’ll move to the left or right side of the pitch; they’ll dribble the ball to the top of the 18. Aston Villa have two of the most dynamic attack-minded midfielders in this division, and they finally used them both together, effectively, Monday. It was lovely.

I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the midfield was so effective with Mile Jedinak in for Glenn Whelan. Jedinak was the key man for this Villa team last year, because he’s so good with the responsibilities of a defensive midfielder, and that effectiveness lets the guys who sit immediately in front of him do their jobs. This should be the preferred midfield trio from here on out.

I’m really happy for Scott Hogan

There’s a very good striker in that No. 9 shirt just waiting to burst onto the scene, and Monday was the best I’ve seen Scott yet at Villa. He was active and (finally!), Villa were playing to his strengths — it’s funny what happens when you let creative players (see above) create.

But more important than the performance, for me, was the simple existence of a goal (and a well-taken one at that). For a striker, one goal can really boost the confidence and lead to many more, and Villa are going to need Hogan’s goals — and, for all intents and purposes, Hogan’s second shot-on-target was as good as a goal, a well-fired header that created a juicy rebound for Robert Snodgrass to prod home.

Villa took their good fortune and turned it into a rout

For everything that can be said about Hogan’s opener, though, we’ve gotta admit: Villa got a little lucky. Bristol City were the better side in the opening minutes, and 20 minutes into the match, Villa hadn’t as much as registered a shot. Then, we got this moment of magic:

It’s a great ball in from Adomah, and Hogan does really well to meet it and redirect it toward the target. But we all know that a header from 12 yards out isn’t necessarily one of the better chances in football — more often than not, these result in glancing headers that go wide, over the bar, or harmlessly at the goalkeeper. Villa got one of those times when the striker hit it just perfectly, the keeper had no chance, and the ball beautifully fell into the back of the net.

If there’s been a defining characteristic that seems to encapsulate Villa’s recent history, though, it’s that they’ve often struggled when handed a break or good fortune. Villa were outplayed in the opening 20 minutes, and the Hogan goal was the first good chance. For once, though, Villa took that positive momentum and channeled it into dominance on the shot chart, outshooting the Robins 12-2 after Hogan’s goal.

I’ve talked before in this column about game states, and Villa looked good in them Monday. From Hogan’s 21st-minute goal until the halftime whistle, Villa dominated the match (Bristol City had no further first-half shots) and pushed for the second goal that came, putting the Claret and Blues in the dominant position coming out of the break.

Robert Snodgrass has snapped out of his slump

Heading to Middlesbrough on Saturday, many supporters called for Steve Bruce to drop the on-loan winger, and you really couldn’t blame them: Snodgrass had gone five matches without an open-play goal involvement, and his performances seemed lacklustre and a little devoid of energy.

He bagged the winner at the Riverside on Saturday, and came back with probably his best performance in a claret and blue shirt (Villa or West Ham) on New Year’s Day. With five goals and six assists in 21 matches, Snodgrass is involved in a goal every other time he sees the pitch for Villa, and when paired with Albert Adomah on the opposite wing (who upped his tally to 13 goal involvements with the opening assist Monday), the duo create one hell of a partnership.

What’s most dangerous about these too, though, is that they can impact the match both as scorers and creators. Over the season, Snodgrass has been thought of more as an assist guy — but he just scored three goals over a three-day span. And on the flip side, Adomah has been Villa’s leading scorer this season, but had the opening assist on a beautiful cross, and might as well be credited for a second assist, playing the ball that Hogan put on target, leading to Snodgrass’ tap-in for a 2-0 lead. If Villa can get consistent performances out of the striker position (and that’s a huge if), there’s no reason they can’t run wild on any Championship defence.

This division is a roller coaster

The last time I wrote xV, it felt like things were on the brink of spiraling out of control, as Villa had fallen out of the top six and were sitting nine points off automatic promotion.

Now, Villa are back up to fifth place, look capable of becoming the form side in the division (more on that later), and are only five points back of second place. All of that happened in the span of, what, 53 hours? That was pretty neat. Obviously, the two-games-in-three-days run isn’t going to reoccur, but there’s something inherently volatile about a promotion push, because every single result is important, and that’s different from the relegation battles we’d become accustomed to.

When you’re fighting against relegation, all you have to do to survive is win 25 percent of your matches and draw 25 percent of the matches — losing the other half is perfectly fine. If a result goes poorly, sure it’s frustrating, but to some extent, there’s typically more chances down the road to make up the points you lost out on that day.

In the Championship, to make the play-offs, you roughly need to win half your matches, then draw another quarter. There’s only a certain number of losses you can afford, and every individual one creeps you closer and closer to that threshold faster than with a relegation battle. This is where the idea of the “crisis” comes from, and we should recognize and accept that’s how it’s going to be.

Sometimes you need to win ugly

Especially when you’re away to a Tony Pulis side. I didn’t watch Saturday’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough, but it sounded like a scrappy affair where Villa got three huge points. Always nice to read that.

Villa need to turn this into a run of good form

Aston Villa’s next five league fixtures are Nottingham Forest (A), Barnsley (H), Sheffield United (A), Burton Albion (H), Birmingham City (H).

This is about as luxurious of a run as you get, and yes, I know it includes a derby match. Barnsley, Burton and Blues are three of the worst sides in the division, and you get them all at home. Forest just sacked their manager and haven’t scored since Christmas.

When you consider that the Blades match is likely to be moved for the fourth round of the FA Cup (assuming one of the two of us go through), a six-match win streak in the Championship looks surprisingly feasible, and dare I say necessary for automatic promotion. Villa require 46 points from the last 20 matches to hit 90, which is probably a figure good enough for second — but if they get 12 from their next four outings, that requirement would drop to only 34 over the last 16, a run that would be difficult, but one that looks a lot more manageable. This weak upcoming slate is a luxury and a bit of good luck, but Villa have to take advantage of it and put the pressure on the other teams around them.

As fun as Monday was, it was the perfect example of why Steve Bruce’s Wild Ride is so frustrating

For everything that we’ve talked about here, and all the sudden optimism, it’s just that: sudden. We saw the four-goal outburst against Norwich City followed by a run of one goal in three league matches. We saw a good run of form suddenly turn into five without a win.

Steve Bruce’s Villa seems to follow this trend, where they respond to a run of poor form with a run of good form at the crucial time, but can never keep it up enough to stick at the height they got to. They’ll charge from the bottom half early up to fourth place, but then fall back to eighth. They’ll shoot up to fifth, and maybe higher, but it’s hard to believe they won’t come falling back down again.

And what most of us ask for, and have asked for, is that the team sets up to play like it did Monday all the time. Let the attacking talent Villa have overwhelm opponents, and let the Claret and Blues run the opposition off the pitch more often than not. The only way Villa can still achieve automatic promotion is through the playing of great attacking football, and Bruce needs to admit that and roll with it. Right now, I don’t care that he only played this midfield trio because Whelan fell ill (also, shout-out to Tommy Elphick, who’s looked great recently), or that he only had Grealish and Hourihane together in the squad because a Josh Onomah injury forced him to go to it last time out. I don’t care that it took him 26 matches to finally put together a game plan that suited Hogan’s strengths.

All I care about is that he sticks with what works, even if it doesn’t necessarily match his management style. This can be a really good, attractive football team that can go on one hell of a run to finish the season, I truly believe it. The manager just has to let it happen.