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xV: Villa prevail over Blues in clash of styles, will now embark on a key run of fixtures

Aston Villa won the Second City Derby 4-2 on Sunday, defeating cross-town rivals Birmingham City at Villa Park. In the grand scheme, though, what they do the next five times out will probably be more important to the season result.

Aston Villa v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM – Jack Grealish celebrates scoring in the first half of Aston Villa’s 4-2 derby win over Birmingham City on Sunday 25 November.

Welcome to Expected Villa, a column about the numbers behind Villa’s results! Dean Smith’s Villa side put four past Birmingham City in the Second City Derby on Sunday. Let’s take a look at a few stats from that result, then pivot toward looking ahead at Villa’s next month.

This was a contrast of two wildly different styles

There are plenty of different figures that show this, but let’s try to hit them all. Per the BBC’s match report, Villa had 74% possession on Sunday, which is an absurd possession number I never thought I’d see a Villa team hit. At WhoScored, Villa out-passed Birmingham by a better than 3-to-1 ratio, being logged for 529 successful passes (92% completion rate) compared to their opponents’ 172 (77%). The underlying figures show insight into the why — of Villa’s 575 pass attempts in WhoScored, only 58 of those were directed long and just 114 targeted the final third. Of Blues’ 222 attempts, 51 (nearly as many as Villa) were directed long and 136 (more than Villa) targeted the final third.

And yet, despite playing a brand of football that often gets managers branded in a negative light, Birmingham City were right in that match on the balance. There were only 22 shots in the game, and Blues had 10 of them. It’s not like they were taking low-quality chances, either — seven of those chances were taken from inside the penalty area (nine of Villa’s 12 were for reference).

There is a lot to be said for possessing the ball, passing it around and creating great chances, which are all things that Villa did and worthwhile things to do when you’re the better team. But damn, it’s only going to be successful in the long run if Villa can do a better job to limit counterattacking opportunities. It’s easy to look back on that match and forget that Blues really easily could’ve gone 2-0 up when Che Adams hit the post when it would’ve been easier to put it on target, and that within three minutes of that moment, Villa were suddenly 2-1 up.

I like that Dean Smith genuinely gets this and admits it in his post-match pressers — he’s made a point that Villa didn’t necessarily play well Sunday (they didn’t) and that performances will need to improve going forward.

Yet the good thing is that Villa are creating genuinely great chances right now. Grealish’s headed goal was one of the better-worked Villa have scored in some time, while there was good build-up to Kodjia’s equalizer. All of that strong attacking play helped Alan Hutton look like Maradona (this was the surprise from Sunday), with Blues’ defenders probably giving him a bit more space. Assuming James Chester’s fitness keeps improving, Villa should be able to get to the point where they’re playing relatively open matches, but giving up fewer chances (and thus, winning most of those matches).

Villa have plenty more important matches coming up

If a top-two finish is to be achieved, Villa need to have a successful run.

Last time in xV, I ran through the calculations of what would be required to get to 90 points (a standard second-place target). It’s, uh … a lot of winning. The 90-point figure, of course, shouldn’t be taken as gospel — technically, to finish top two, Villa will need to finish ahead of at least 22 other Championship sides.

Our guys currently sit eighth, which means six opponents must be jumped between now and the end of the season if automatic promotion is to be achieved. The good news? Villa are still yet to play four of the seven teams currently ahead of them.

The easiest way to make up ground on a team is to beat them head-to-head, and the Claret and Blues are going to give that a go over the next month. Wednesday starts our journey, as Villa host seventh-placed Nottingham Forest, who they’d jump with a two-goal or better victory. There’s no rest, as the weekend brings a trip to second-placed Middlesbrough, before the following Friday (7 December) sees Villa visit the side in fourth, West Bromwich Albion. In a statement nobody expected to make this year, the fixtures ease up a little bit as Villa have Stoke City at home after WBA, but then it’s third-placed Leeds United who visit Villa Park, completing the first half of the Villa schedule just before Christmas.

I harp on this a lot, but Villa’s ceiling this season will be determined by the outcome of these next five matches. If Dean Smith’s side are successful and win 10 or more points, they’re going to be genuine promotion candidates through the whole campaign. If they struggle amidst some injury worries, a last-ditch push for sixth probably becomes the new target.

Jack Grealish is in form and that’s awesome

That goal was wonderful and everything I’ve ever wanted for Jack. He’s now scored twice in three matches after not finding the back of the net in the first 15 matches of the season, which is something that’s really good for Villa and crucial. He’s upped his performances under Smith (this is a trend, by the way, funny how having a manager that “does tactics” works), but Jack’s impact went well beyond the goal: Grealish was fouled 10 times on Sunday, the most of any Championship player this season (in fact, Blues fouled Jack more often than Villa fouled all Blues players combined). He controlled the derby.

On that fouls mark, though: I hate this division, and the first minute of the match was a perfect example why. It was clear Blues (like most of the Championship) targeted Jack from the get-go, and a clearly cynical and bookable foul was let go. It set the tone for yet another “hack-a-Jack” contest. Grealish has now been fouled 91 times this season, 35 more than anyone else in the division. He’s too good for this level. That doesn’t mean referees should let teams hack away at him every time out.

Blues are a disgrace to football

Royal blue does not clash with claret. You should never wear your change kit in a derby match unless you absolutely have to.

Bask in the shame of your deserved result, Blues.

I’m happy for Alan Hutton

That goal was absurd. Hutton’s upped his performance since Smith came on board, IMO, and I’m happy for the bloke that he’s about cemented his place as a cult hero at this club.