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xV: Steve Bruce got his tactics right to win the derby

Aston Villa went second in the Championship on Sunday with a 2-0 win over rivals Birmingham City, with Villa’s attacking mindset pushing them to the win.

Aston Villa v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 11: Steve Bruce manager of Aston Villa waves to the fans during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Birmingham City at Villa Park on February 11, 2018 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Hey friends! Welcome back to Expected Villa (xV), a numbers-focused look at Villa’s results and play. The Claret and Blues are Second City Derby winners, and I couldn’t be more pleased with that performance. Let’s dive in.

Steve Bruce got the tactics spot-on against Blues

The way Sunday’s match played out, well, it didn’t really look like a derby. I mean, yes, it absolutely sounded like a derby in the crowd, and Jack Grealish looked more energized than anyone I’ve ever seen, but that match was open. Derbies generally have this reputation for being cagey affairs, where the lesser team is able to keep things close by limiting chances and playing physically.

Blues did the latter, but if they were trying to grind out a 0-0 or nick a 1-0 win against the run of play, they certainly failed at the former. Villa had a lot territorial dominance early, and even though there weren’t clear-cut chances, the Claret and Blues spent most of the match attacking on the front foot. Against a team like Blues, an open match is almost always going to benefit Villa, simply because we have the more talented and creative players — as the number of scoring chances increases, the probability that Villa see out a result also increases. That’s what happened Sunday as, finally, Villa were able to break through the Blues defence with a great move. From there, they poured on the pressure and shots and made it 2-0 on a wonderful strike.

And props to Bruce for making the right call to drop Birkir Bjarnason, who’s good, in favor of playing Mile Jedinak, who’s also good. Jedinak was perfect for this match and he played really well.

How good do you have to be to win man of the match when you don’t score?

Ask Jack Grealish.

Super Jack ran wild on this match, and his impact went well beyond that perfectly played assist (with a little decoy help from Conor Hourihane) for Albert Adomah. Grealish constantly caused Blues problems Sunday — he was fouled six times, completed a team-best 82 percent of passes (despite, you know, playing in the No. 10 role), took 77 touches (most of anyone in the match), completed five dribbles, made three tackles, and was only dispossessed once. Grealish genuinely looks like the best player in the competition, and Villa have been an entirely more lively side since he’s come back.

Villa are finally in the driver’s seat

For the first time all year, the Claret and Blues sit in an automatic promotion spot. They’re playing the best football in the division, and probably have the most talent of anyone chasing that No. 2 spot. Villa did a great job this weekend of taking advantage of everyone around them’s slip-ups — all the other contenders drew Friday or Saturday.

That said, this is far from over. Saturday’s visit to Fulham, followed by a Tuesday night contest with Preston North End at Villa Park, will be absolutely crucial. If Villa can get out of these two matches with four points (probably through a point at Craven Cottage and three at Villa Park), it will be a huge result, even if Derby win both their matches to move back into second.

That’s because Villa’s next eight fixtures after Preston are really pretty tame — Wednesday (A), QPR (H), Sunderland (A), Wolves (H), Bolton (A), Hull City (A), Reading (H), Norwich (A). Obviously, Wolves are a huge test, but there’s no reason Villa can’t run wild through this stretch. If they do, they’ll be in a fantastic position going into the final five matches, with a chance to pop some champagne at Villa Park on the penultimate matchday of the season.

But we all know how this can turn south in an instant — if you look around the league, each week you find examples of promotion contenders dropping points to bottom-third teams. Villa have been fortunate to avoid that as of late, but they’ll need to keep their guard up and play to potential 15 more times this year. If they do that, come August, they’ll be back in the top flight.