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xV: Villa bounce back with Swansea win, move into a favourable run of fixtures

A festive Expected Villa breaks down Villa’s bumpy ride over the 25th. Ugly wins and heart-breaking losses made for a dramatic festive period.

CameraSport via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a weekly column about the statistics behind Aston Villa’s results! Villa endured mix results over Christmas with a 3-2 loss to Leeds United followed by an ugly win over Swansea City. Now, the fixtures still come thick and fast as Villa prep to visit Preston before hosting QPR. Let’s dive in.

Villa got an ugly, yet “deserved” win at Swansea

“Deserved” is in quotes, and for good reason. No matter how much I like to lean on statistics to support my analysis (or simple enjoyment of the game), at the end of the day, you deserve as many goals as you put in the back of the net, and deserve to concede as many goals as your opponent puts in the back of the net. Expected goals-based analysis is good for a number of things, but we should never use it to say that a team that racked up the shots, but didn’t score, “deserved” to win.

I make one huge exception for that, though: When a referee’s error directly contributes to a goal.

You might know where I’m going now. Villa deserved a win at West Bromwich Albion, because they legally scored more goals than their opponent. Yet the referee missed a clear handball, and WBA drew the match. Two points taken from Villa.

On Boxing Day, Villa deserved to win — no quotes there, because they scored one more goal than Swansea City. But given how Villa played, they wouldn’t have expected to get the full three points. From that standpoint, you might think that they got back the two points they “deserved” from the WBA draw.

The most important six matches of the season* are here

*At least for now.

Villa have now played 24 matches, and are now on 36 points. If they’re to reach the 75-point marker that’s often enough for the last play-off spot, they only need 39 the rest of the way (11-6-5, for example). That’s an evidently reasonable goal, and even if that number creeps up toward the 80-point mark, Villa would only need 44 to get there (13-5-4 or thereabouts).

The typical automatic promotion target of 90 points remains difficult, as 54 points would be required from 22 matches (roughly 17-3-2 or 16-6-0). It seems more likely that Villa win automatic promotion at 85 points, with Leeds United or Norwich City slipping, than Villa reaching 90 points to go up in the top two.

You can generally split the rest of Villa’s season into four distinct groups based on fixture difficulty — an easier one to start; a tough run in February and March; another easy stretch; then finishing the season with Leeds and Norwich (and the play-offs, perhaps). No matter which target you’re looking toward, though, Villa can do a lot to bolster their chances over this first easy run, which spans the next six matches.

  • 29 December: at Preston North End (19th)
  • 1 January: vs Queens Park Rangers (8th)
  • 12 January: at Wigan (19th)
  • 19 January: vs Hull City (15th)
  • 26 January: vs Ipswich Town (24th)
  • 2 February: at Reading (23rd)

There’s only one team here outside the bottom 10 (QPR), and Villa get them at home. It’s a run Dean Smith’s guys should be getting near-maximum points from, and if he does, he’ll start to separate his résumé at Villa even more from his predecessor, Steve Bruce.

If you think back to last season, Villa didn’t miss out on automatic promotion because they couldn’t beat top teams — rather, they lost out because they couldn’t beat bad teams. Down the stretch, Villa notched a resounding 4-1 win over champions Wolves and a 1-0 decision over Cardiff City, who went up from second. Yet those massive wins were either side of defeats to QPR (finished 16th), Bolton Wanderers (finished 21st) and Norwich (finished 14th). Toss in a draw with Hull (finished 18th) to complete a quartet of frustration. Had Villa gone 2-2-0 in those matches instead of 0-1-3, and all other results would’ve held steady, they’d be in the Premier League right now.

My personal target for Villa in this run is 16 points, which would move them to 52 points through 30 matches and much closer to the targets we discussed earlier. Just 23 points would be required from the final 16 matches (7-2-7) to hit 75 points, and the 38 from 16 that would be required for 90 points feels much more manageable (12-2-2).

As I noted earlier, if you’re looking really far ahead, Villa’s last two opponents this season are Leeds and Norwich. Villa’s target for the rest of the season should be to get up around 80 points after 44 matches and hopefully put some pressure on at least one of the current top two.

Another mini-rant about game states

In the first half of the Leeds match Sunday morning, the commentator wouldn’t stop gushing about Leeds. He went on and on about how good they were, how they had more possession, and how they had more shots. There was only one problem: they were 2-0 down. The commentators for us international supporters are different from what Brits get on Sky, but from the reaction I gathered on Twitter, those commentators were giving the same level of praise.

Of course, at the end of the day, it looked as if the commentators had a bit of a point. But when they made the comments… they didn’t have much of a rational point. Villa scored early in the first half, then again only a handful of minutes later. At that point, with the score line at 2-0, there were two dominant strategies for the involved teams:

  • Leeds needed to score at least twice in order to get something out of the game
  • Villa needed to keep Leeds from scoring twice in order to win the game

Of course Leeds United had more of the ball! We shouldn’t be praising a team that spends most of the match behind for, uh, attacking better than the team that spends most of the match losing, should we?

It’s one of the more annoying tropes in football analysis, and becomes particularly worrying in the realm of single-game xG analysis, which often would say that a team that raced out to an early lead with a couple of good finishes, then held on for a win, was an “undeserving” winner. Every action, and every bit of tactics, should consider the situation in play. Given the situation Saturday, Leeds were doing exactly what they should’ve been doing in the first half — not something worry about unending praise.