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xV: Villa get back to winning ways at Hillsborough

Aston Villa came from behind to win 4-2 at Hillsborough on Saturday, a great show of resilience and, perhaps, actually a “deserved” result.

Aston Villa v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 11: John Terry of Aston Villa celebrates after 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. Villa got back to winning ways Saturday with a thrilling 4-2 victory at Sheffield Wednesday, but the Claret and Blues are still four points off Cardiff City for second place.

Villa might have actually just been the better team Saturday

From a statistical perspective, I really don’t know what to make of Saturday’s win. It was an open game and, for long periods of time, it felt like Villa were second-best. When my dad texted me and asked if I thought the result was ”deserved,” I didn’t feel like it particularly was.

And then I went and looked at the stats and… yeah, if anyone was the better team on the pitch Saturday, it was Villa. Experimental 361 had Villa doubling up Wednesday in the xG count, and while the hosts took more shots (18 to Villa’s 15), it was the Claret and Blues who had the better shot quality; six of Villa’s 15 shots were taken from within the 6-yard box, and 13 of 15 were from somewhere inside the penalty area — that’s contrasted to two and 11 for the Owls.

Granted, those figures are a little bit skewed because Villa needed three goalmouth shots to score their first equalizer, but Villa were good value for the victory Saturday.

If Villa can’t get second, finishing third instead of fourth could be huge

Each match day, it feels like there’s a growing separation between the top five teams and the rest of the play-off contenders, and with this week’s results — Fulham’s win over Wolves; Bristol City’s loss to Cardiff City — that’s more evident than ever, as five points now separate the Cottagers in fifth from the Robins in sixth.

There are any number of teams that could grab the sixth and final play-off spot — Middlesbrough, Sheffield United, Preston North End, Brentford, Leeds United, Millwall, Ipswich Town and Norwich City are all within seven points of Bristol City — but I would absolutely rather play any of them than Derby County or Fulham. There are a lot of ways to express this gap, but I think the best is by looking at goal differential: every team in the top five has a goal differential of +20 or better. Middlesbrough has the sixth-best goal differential in the league at +12, and every other contender is no better than +9.

If Villa fail to win automatic promotion, the play-off task should be much, much easier from third, playing a team you’ve been significantly better than over the course of the season, than it would be playing Derby or Fulham, two squads that have really good talent. It’s not to say that I’d love playing Boro especially, but I think they’re the worst-case opponent if you finish sixth — and I’d much rather go to the Riverside than back to Craven Cottage or Pride Park.

Villa have favourable fixtures over the next few weeks

I think right now, we all have Villa v Cardiff on 10 April circled on our calendars, and it’s a fair guess that this is going to be a crucial match. The only way it isn’t is if Villa lose touch with the Bluebirds, and realistically, given the upcoming schedules, they shouldn’t. The next seven matches for each of the four teams in the chase for second (with points total relative to Villa in parentheses):

Cardiff (+4): Brentford (A), Barnsley (H), Birmingham (H), Derby (A), Burton (H), Sheffield Utd (A), Wolves (H)

This is an interesting run from Cardiff, because they have three almost-guaranteed wins in those first three home matches. Their away trips, however, are challenging — draws at each of Brentford, Derby and Blades would be good results — and they close with Wolves at home. I think that it is a fair expectation that Cardiff could have a 4-1-2 stretch that opens the door a little bit for Villa to get back in it. The Bluebirds have to fall out of form sometime soon, right? Cardiff have 16 points from their last six matches, the best total in the league.

Villa: QPR (H), Sunderland (A), Wolves (H), Bolton (A), Hull (A), Reading (H), Norwich (A)

Six of Villa’s next seven opponents are in the bottom half, and among those, only Norwich is a particularly mid-table team. This run should mean wins, but will it? Villa play the three easiest opponents in this run away from home — the Claret and Blues will need to get results on the road against teams as desperate as they are (though for a different reason) to give themselves a chance heading into the final five matches.

Derby (-3): Fulham (H), QPR (A), Forest (A), Cardiff (H), Sunderland (H), Preston (A), Bolton (H)

Derby has a good number of manageable fixtures, but it also has two six-pointers in the next couple weeks. For them, like Villa, they have to hold serve at home against the other contenders. If the Rams can roll through the next four matches with a minimum of 10 points, they’re still in the race. If not, they probably drop out and become a firm play-off side. It’s also worth noting that Derby have Wolves on 10 April.

Fulham (-4): Derby (A), Sheffield Utd (H), Preston (A), QPR (H), Norwich (A), Leeds (H), Wednesday (A)

This is an interesting stretch for the Cottagers, but I broadly see no reason they can’t keep their run going and get themselves in position for the final run-in. The first three fixtures are tough, but if the Cottagers can get through them with seven points (wholly realistic given current form, in my opinion), they’re right there as a team that can win automatic promotion.

Can we stop talking about Wolves so much?

If they slip up a lot more and Villa have a chance to catch them, great. But until that happens, they aren’t a promotion rival, and by entertaining the idea, you’re giving their supporters the attention from us they crave. If they drop their next couple matches and suddenly the gap is four or six points heading into the matchup at Villa Park soon, then great, let’s talk some crap. But there’s no sense in tweeting at them about how the gap is getting smaller every day when that gap is still at 10 points.