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xV: Dean Smith bucked traditional thought and made the smart move late against Stoke City

Aston Villa had an attacking sub queued up when they equalized late against Stoke City on Saturday. They made the sub anyway, which was a smart move even if it didn’t change the outcome.

Aston Villa v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship
Dean Smith, a smart man, shown during the 2-2 draw against Stoke City on Saturday.

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column about the numbers behind Villa’s results. This week, we look at Dean Smith’s awesome substitution late in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Stoke City, consider how (or if) Villa can still finish top two, and touch on the impressive results against fellow promotion contenders.

Dean Smith is smart, which is neat

Trailing 2-1 in the latter stages of Saturday’s match with Stoke City, Dean Smith readied a change: Scott Hogan for Glenn Whelan. It was a natural move — if Villa were to get anything from the match, they’d need to score, so bringing on an extra attacker and moving off a defensive midfielder made sense.

Then a funny thing happened before Hogan could enter. Villa scored.

At 2-2, particularly in a match where you’d trailed and equalized twice, many managers would pull back that substitution and go with more conservative tactics to see out the point. Something was gained from the result, and for most managers, it’s not worth risking that point.

I’ve always found this line of thinking silly. You get three points from winning a match, but only one for drawing the match. If you play as an attack-minded squad late in a level match, to me, the reward (two added points) far outweighs the risk (one dropped point). If you go for it and win three matches at the death, but also lose three matches at the death, you’re still earning nine points there. If you play conservatively, as is conventional wisdom, and see out six draws in those matches instead, you only earn six points.

Some of it, I think, is fear of failure. We see the same thing a lot in American football. A common example is going for it on fourth down — it makes mathematical sense to almost always go for it on fourth-and-short, but coaches allow the risk of failure and criticism to cloud their judgment. If a football manager makes an attacking sub in a level match, and his team concedes a winner via a counterattack, he may get slated for it in the press over the next week.

I’m glad Villa have a manager that isn’t dumb.

Let’s re-evaluate what a realistic target is

Villa are playing good football. They’re 4-3-0 in their last seven matches, and really, Saturday was the first time in that seven-match stretch where we walked away thinking that Villa shouldn’t have claimed all three points. Especially when you consider that Villa have played the teams currently placed third, fifth, sixth, seventh, 10th and 11th during that run, it becomes clear that Smith’s guys are playing really strong football right now.

The wild thing is though, while it’s been a really good run of form, that’s still behind the pace required to get to the 90-point target that’s typically more or less required for automatic promotion.

Villa are currently 11 points back of second-placed Norwich City and 12 back of first-placed Leeds United, and Sunday’s contest against Leeds will complete the first half of the Championship campaign. Even if Villa win, they’d sit on just 36 points at the midway point, far behind the pace.

To get to 90 at the end of the season, Villa will need to win 57 points in the final 24 matches. For context, last season, Fulham won 59 points from their remarkable final 24-match run of form, where they went 18-5-0 before losing on the final day of the season. Villa will need to pull off something similar to go up automatically by hitting the conventional target.

If Villa are going to finish in the top two, it’s probably because of a bit of a drop-off from Norwich or Leeds that brings the target down from 90 to maybe 82-85 points, not because the Claret and Blues suddenly surge to 90 points.

That’s part of what makes Sunday so important. Villa can rein Leeds in just a bit with a win, then do the same in the return fixture in 2019. Ditto for the home match against Norwich next year.

But no matter what, from our point of view, automatic promotion is Leeds and Norwich’s to lose. Villa need a stumble from the current top two to really be in with a chance.

The positive news: Villa are in a good spot to make the play-offs

Even if Nottingham Forest beat Derby County tonight, Villa will sit just four points back of sixth place. There’s plenty of time to make up that gap, and if Villa keep playing like they have been, they’ll rack up points against the bottom half of the Championship and should surge into the top six with ease.

The better news is that under Smith, Villa have shown to be well-positioned to be successful if they do return to the play-offs. They went away from home to West Brom and were only denied a win by the referee. They dominated Derby County and Middlesbrough away. They played a wild 5-5 fixture that absolutely should have been a win against Forest.

If Villa make the play-offs, they will be the best team in them. There’s still a high degree of randomness involved in going up via that route, but as Fulham showed last year, sometimes the best team really does win.