Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column about the statistics and numbers behind Villa’s results! The Claret and Blues ran out away winners for the first time since August on Saturday and did it in style, throttling Derby County 3-0 at Pride Park.
That was Villa’s best away performance in ages
After 45 minutes, I was expecting to write about how Villa matches were genuinely fun again — no matter whether our boys won, lost or drew after 90. Derby and Villa split 15 shots nearly equally in the first half, and each side had a couple quality chances you’d have backed the attacking player to score in. It was one of the more entertaining 0-0 halves of football I’d watched in quite some time.
Well, as it turned out, the second half was much more enjoyable than the first, as Villa layered being good on top of Villa being fun.
Derby County had just three shots in the second half, all of which came from outside the 18 and none of which threatened. Meanwhile, Villa had attempted 10 shots by the time Derby took their first in the half, en route to a 14-3 shot advantage and a 3-0 advantage on the score line.
Even that 14-3 edge doesn’t really describe the level of dominance Villa had, though — of the 14 shots, nine came from inside the penalty area and five were in front of goal, within 8-10 yards. Villa weren’t just creating chances, they were creating elite-level chances, the type that only uncharacteristically poor finishing can keep a team from converting.
To be fair, Villa tried to do that for a while, and Jonathan Kodjia’s finishing left a lot to be desired, but eventually, Villa found shooting boots (or heads, in John McGinn’s case) and ran away with a deserved three points. (By the way, I think Kodjia will be fine, but for as long as Yannick Bolasie is playing well, he may be best utilized as a substitute.)
This midfield is really, really talented
Is there any team in the Championship that has three midfield threats as good as Villa’s? I can’t imagine any do. We know how good Jack Grealish is, and any day he’s not getting the headlines at all is probably a good one.
Naturally, John McGinn will get the majority of headlines — he scored Villa’s opener, assisted on the second, then won the free kick for the third. In the middle of all of it, he got himself a yellow card, completing football’s closest tangent to the Gordie Howe hat trick (all in the span of a few minutes).
I’m going to devote some words to Conor Hourihane, though, which is perhaps expected if you read this column regularly. I recently wrote about how Hourihane’s dead ball threat can be such a weapon — set pieces are wildly undervalued in football, IMO — and today, he displayed it again with a sublime free kick goal to finish the scoring. That ability is enough, in my eyes, to warrant a regular place in the XI for the Irish midfielder.
Yet Hourihane did a lot more than just score a free kick goal today. He largely sat back in a more defensive role, letting Grealish and McGinn do their things, and in the process, rarely put a foot wrong. Hourihane was on the ball more than any Villa player Saturday with 60 passes and 67 touches, and per WhoScored, only lost possession once, on a heavy touch in the first minute.
Obviously, guys like Birkir Bjarnason and Glenn Whelan are going to offer a little more bit as true defensive midfield options when compared to Hourihane. But if Hourihane can do what he did today regularly, Villa don’t need a true defensive midfield option, and we certainly saw that in a dominant second half.
This was the away performance we’d been waiting two years for
If any Steve Bruce stans are still in your mentions, please just show them a tape of that second half. That was a good Derby County side Villa just bossed on the road, one that hadn’t lost in their last six Championship matches and started the day fifth in the table.
This level of attacking play was something we rarely saw out of Steve Bruce’s Villa sides, and particularly not away from home, where Villa often seemed to play for draws against mid-table sides. Even when Villa were winning matches under Bruce, there was always some unrest, and today was precisely the reason why. This is, and has been, a supremely talented attacking team that played like a team bereft of attacking talent.
Dean Smith has come in and rectified that quickly, and it’s the tactical change that’s going to enable Villa to have a shot at surging up the table.
Full credit is required to Dean and his staff, because I thought it’d take more than a couple matches to get this team really firing in his system. Villa had shown flashes in the first few matches under Smith, but I didn’t think we’d see a full performance like that until after the break. And while we’re there, full credit to the players for buying in so quickly. These guys are all professional footballers who have surely played in not-awful systems during their careers, but again, they’ve gotten up to speed really quickly.
Villa have a huge opportunity over the next few matches
If Villa are going to go on a run of form, this is the right time to do it. Derby rivals Birmingham City await our boys after the international break to kick off a run of televised fixtures, which is followed by meetings with Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion. A match with Stoke City follows, then Leeds United and Swansea City sit either side of Christmas. There are 10 teams that sit ahead of Villa in the table right now, and the Claret and Blues will see five of them in the next seven matches. There will be a lot of ground they can pick up if and when they get three points.
Ultimately, this will be the run that probably defines the second-half goals. Strong success will genuinely put a top-two finish within reach, while a decent run means Villa are probably playing for a play-off spot.
Hopefully our boys can pick up where they left off when they return from the international break.