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xV: Analyzing Villa’s win at Boro, their set piece prowess, and the trip to the Hawthorns

Expected Villa’s back and keeps talking about set pieces. Also, did we just see a “perfect” Villa performance? Will 100 goals be scored tonight at WBA?

Aston Villa v Nottingham Forest - Sky Bet Championship
All of the guys in this picture can score goals, which is pretty neat.
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a weekly column about the statistics behind Aston Villa’s results! Villa dominated Middlesbrough last week in a 3-0 win and now prep for what appears to be a high-scoring showdown with West Bromwich Albion. Let’s jump in.

Saturday’s win at Middlesbrough wrote the book on how Villa should play

A simple question: Why did Aston Villa win at Boro this past Saturday? It’s not because they kept a clean sheet, rather it’s because they went on the road and attacked at will.

For the time being, at least, Villa aren’t going to be a great defensive team. While Villa did keep a clean sheet and win 3-0 last time out, it took a truly wonderful save from Ørjan Nyland to keep Boro off the score sheet. At other points in time, Villa still looked shaky at the back, and if Boro were a little more clinical (see Nottingham Forest the Wednesday before), perhaps the outcome would’ve been different.

Villa remain a flawed team, much like every one of the other 23 teams in the Championship. There is no team without significant flaws like 2017/18 Wolves or 2016/17 Newcastle. That Dean Smith has embraced those flaws, and built a style of play around them, is wonderful to see.

How do you mitigate the negative effects of having a bad defensive team? One easy way: play defense less often than your opponents. Give them more chances to screw up than our own defenders do.

It worked for Villa on Saturday, when they out-shot Boro 21-10, including a 13-6 edge on shots taken from inside the penalty area. The thing is, it wasn’t even Villa’s open play that got them the edge (more on that in a second) — rather, the persistent pressure eventually paid off via a pair of set piece goals.

In the last five matches, where Villa are 4-1-0, the Claret and Blues have out-shot their opposition 17-11, 21-11 (including 14-3 in the box), 12-9, 26-8 and now 21-10. When you average nearly 10 more shots per match than your opponent, yeah, you’re going to win a lot of matches, even if your defence does suck.

Aston Villa are the Championship’s best set piece team*

*When they’re taking them.

Hey, it’s been a second! Villa have scored 15 set piece goals this season, which is five more than the second-place team. They’re on pace for 35 total set piece goals. That’s awesome. What’s even cooler is that Villa have scored eight set piece goals in their eight matches under Dean Smith.

I’ve written in this space before about the huge value in being good at set pieces, and it’s pretty clear that Villa might just be that team. Another thing that’s wonderful about being good at set pieces is that it travels better than being good at open play — Villa have eight set-piece goals away compared to seven at home, for example, which is not the case for open play scoring.

Some people will see the barrage of set piece goals and chalk it up to luck, which hey, you do you. But Villa have been near the top of set piece goal expectancy for a couple of years now, which makes sense for a few reasons:

  1. Jack Grealish wins significantly more free kicks (and particularly free kicks in attacking areas) than any other player in the league. Opposing fans would tell you it’s because he dives every time he’s touched, but you’d think that if that’s the case, the same damn referees would eventually realize they’re being duped. An easier answer: damn every Championship team’s tactic is to repeatedly hack Jack and pray, because they know they can’t actually defend a player that Tottenham wanted to buy this summer.
  2. When I wrote about set pieces before, I focused on Hourihane, who can be truly spectacular from dead balls (see his goal at Derby County, for example). He’s not the only weapon, though, as Villa’s two varied goals at Boro last Saturday show. In one, Villa played a great ball into the area and James Chester, who’s always a threat on set pieces, directed it home. In the other, Villa played short to force defenders to mark both Grealish and Hourihane. When Boro decided they needed to close down Villa’s two best threats from distance, they left Yannick Bolasie unmarked in the process. Bolasie then found Tammy Abraham (and two other Villans could’ve gotten to the tap-in just as easily), who was also unmarked. All of this happens because there’s a million weapons out there, and if Villa get more creative with their set pieces, I tell ya, they could be an all-time great set piece squad at this level.
  3. Dean Smith is a smart man and, I think, understands that set pieces are valuable.

Back to that asterisk for a bit. While Villa have scored the most set piece goals this year, they’ve also conceded the joint-most, with 11 set piece goals against. This doesn’t worry me that much, though, because again, Villa are mitigating this by giving their opponents fewer chances to score from set pieces than they have. At the end of the day, Villa are no worse a defensive team than they are a great attacking team, and if they keep winning more set pieces than their opponents, all will be well.

What will tonight look like?

West Bromwich Albion have scored 42 goals in 20 matches. Villa have bagged 39, including 15 in their last four.

There should be goals, right?

This is a huge measuring stick for Villa. They went away and dominated Boro, which yeah, they should be able to do, because Tony Pulis has never once in his life had an interest in playing coherent attacking football. WBA are much like Villa, in that they have serious defensive flaws, but also have a boatload of attacking talent that mitigates those problems.

For everything about Villa, this is the most similar opponent they’ll play. If they can carry the play at The Hawthorns, it becomes yet another reason to be optimistic about Villa’s chances to go on a great run for the rest of the season. If they get outplayed, it’ll maybe serve to bring us back to Earth a little bit.

Either way, we’re going to learn something important.