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xV: The Championship has a lot of parity this season and that gives Villa a chance

If Dean Smith can make his mark on this squad, Aston Villa supporters are right to dream about reaching the top of the table this year. There’s no dominant team to stop them from doing so.

Leeds United v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship
Middlesbrough and Leeds United are two of the top teams in this year’s Championship, yet neither looks likely to run away with automatic promotion. That provides a window of opportunity for Dean Smith and Aston Villa.
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Welcome to a short installment of Expected Villa (xV), a semi-regular column that looks at the statistics behind Villa’s results and seasons. Once Dean Smith gets a few games under his belt, we’ll take a look at the prognosis for the rest of the season, but for now, we try to figure out who’s actually good in the Championship.

If you were going to tell me at the start of the season that Steve Bruce would be sacked before the October international break, I’d have said Villa would probably be well out of the automatic promotion race. Yet here we sit, 33 matches left to play and Dean Smith’s Villa are just seven points back off the top.

While those two early wins helped put Villa in a better place after Bruce’s departure, the club’s relatively close standing to the top of the table is more down to how the rest of the league has played rather than how Villa played under their previous manager. An easy way to illustrate this is by noting that the same Villa team that sits seven points back of first also currently lies in the bottom half of the table.

By this time last year, you had a pretty good idea that Wolves were going up, and ditto for Newcastle United two seasons ago. That’s certainly not the case this year, where Middlesbrough and Sheffield United sit joint-top with just 25 points through 13 matches. All that plays well for Smith and Villa, who are much closer to the top than they’d otherwise be.

There’s really nothing yet that suggests someone is going to start running away with it, either, with nearly every contender having a serious flaw in either attack or defence. Over the last five seasons, 10 teams have gone up in the automatic promotion spots. Nine of those 10 teams have scored at least 1.5 points per match (all but 2015/16 Boro), and nine have conceded fewer than 1 goal per match (all but 2014/15 Watford). To look at it another way, eight of the last 10 teams to go up automatic from this division have done so by scoring at least 1.5 goals per match and conceding fewer than 1.

The number of teams in the Championship currently doing both these things? One, fourth-placed Leeds United.

Boro sit top of the table, but have only scored 16 goals in 13 matches, while Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion (second and third) have conceded 15 and 18, respectively. While Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds squad do fit both criteria, after starting W-W-W-D-W, the Whites have won just two of their last eight matches.

In fact, defending on the whole is down across the league, with only two of the league’s top 13 teams conceding fewer than the 1 goal per match. Contrast that to last year, where Derby County (48 conceded in 46) had the worst defensive record among the top eight finishers.

If Smith can work out the kinks in Villa’s back four, and get the front six playing the positive, attacking football he was hired to bring, there’s a chance this Villa side could charge up the table. The Championship’s been waiting all season for a top contender to emerge. Perhaps it’s Smith who can deliver it.