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xV: Assessing Villa’s play and promotion chances five matches into the Dean Smith era

Aston Villa have arguably improved every time out under Dean Smith — but is a top-two finish a realistic aim?

Brentford v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa, a column about the numbers behind Aston Villa’s play. As the international break comes to a close, we take a look at how Villa are getting on so far under new manager Dean Smith and what would be required to turn it around and finish top two this term.

How are Villa doing so far under Dean Smith?

Well, if we’re just rolling off the last performance, really damn well, as Villa dominated the second half away to a good Derby County side in a 3-0 victory. It was the type of performance so many of us thought this Villa squad was at least somewhat regularly capable of, and hopefully we see several more performances on that level going forward.

But even the overall trend under Smith has been good. While he lost his second and third fixtures as Villa head man, the expected goals figures from Experimental 361 have improved every time out, going from a 0.1 xG “deficit” against Swansea City in his first match to a dominant, 1.8 xG edge against Derby County. If you’d like to check out the graphics for Norwich City (+0.1 xG), QPR (+0.4 xG) and Bolton Wanderers (+0.6 xG), feel free to click those links.

Obviously, Villa aren’t going to be consistently 1.8 xG better than their opponents, but there’s no reason to believe that performances like the Bolton one — with its flaws, sure, but where Villa did more to win — can’t at the least become the norm.

What’s a realistic aim for Villa?

I like this quote. It’s ostensibly about the derby (and we’ll get to that in a second), but that’s not the part that stood out — it’s the “our obsession is making the top two this season” part.

Two important notes: Aston Villa have 24 points from 17 matches. The team currently placed second (Middlesbrough) is on pace for 84.

Typically, right around 90 points is required to secure one of the automatic promotion slots, and while there’s no team in the league currently on pace for 90, there’s a slew that could push for that 90-point number with a couple runs of good form the remainder of the season. My gut tells me that around 87 points will send a team up in second this year, but let’s say Villa’s target should still be 90 points.

To get to 90, the Claret and Blues need 66 points from their remaining 29 matches — 20 wins, 6 draws and 3 losses is probably the most likely way to that exact figure. Even if you massage the target to be getting to 87 points (19-6-4) or even 84 (18-6-5), that’s … a lot of winning that Villa need to do the rest of the way. All of that means that, if Villa are truly “obsessed” with achieving a top-two finish the rest of the year, we know that this team isn’t going to take matches off or ever set up for a draw at kickoff. It’s a mentality that plagued Villa too many times under Steve Bruce; I always said last year that I wasn’t as bothered by not going up as I was by how Villa weren’t going up. The Cardiff City and Reading losses early last season; the listless Millwall draw in December; getting one point from QPR, Bolton, Hull City and Norwich City last spring. Aston Villa got two points from those seven matches and in all seven, the team just failed to show up and turn in a quality performance.

It’s a mentality thing, and that mentality is going to be huge. You have to accept that you’re going to have off days, matches where you’re a bit unlucky or times where you just get outplayed. Points will be dropped. But Villa can’t be dropping points because they don’t put in a full shift. The mentality of the squad — and what the team’s “obsessed” with — will determine Villa’s ceiling.

On approaching the derby

I like Villa’s mentality going into the Birmingham City match, not necessarily because of how it impacts the derby, but because of how it impacts the remainder of the season. Yes, we want our guys to go out there Sunday and compete with focus and passion. We should also want our guys to go out there the rest of the season and compete with that same focus and passion.

Stay calm and play football. Villa are the better team, and the more the derby is about the match and the less the derby is about the derby, the better.

Some thoughts on Thanksgiving

As I write this, the American holiday of Thanksgiving is winding down. The other football is on the TV. I’ve been well-fed. It’s all cool.

I just wanted to take some time to thank everyone who’s chatted Villa with me on Twitter or on here over the years. I’m a big believer in the concept that sports are best when you have a personal, community tie to supporting the team, and that’s not necessarily easy to find for someone from the American midwest. Nobody watches the Championship out here. Thanks to all y’all for making this whole Villa thing a lot easier. Hopefully 2018 finishes well for us and we can roll on to a great 2019.

Up the Villa!