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xV: Hey, Wolves… want to help keep Villa’s top-two dream alive?

How important has Conor Hourihane been for Villa this year? What would it take for Villa to finish second? I look at that and more in this week’s edition of Expected Villa.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 03: Conor Hourihane of Aston Villa scores his side’s second goal while under pressure from Chris Gunter of Reading during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Reading at Villa Park on April 3, 2018 in Birmingham, England.

Hey, everyone! It’s been a long time — life has a habit of sometimes getting in the way — but xV is back. If you’re new, it’s my weekly column that takes a statistics-based look at how Aston Villa are doing.

Villa got back to winning ways Tuesday with a 3-0 triumph over 10-man Reading, but this week’s xV mostly focuses on big-picture things: Conor Hourihane’s 10th league goal, Villa’s promotion chances, and potential squad rotation heading into the play-offs.

Villa finally have midfield goalscoring threats

For everything Villa have been bad at this decade, having a striker you can count on to bag goals hasn’t been a problem. From Darren Bent to Christian Benteke to, last year, Jonathan Kodjia, the striker position had rarely been an issue for Villa. Where Villa have struggled for so long, however, is having a proper threat from midfield who can step up to shoulder a significant portion of the scoring load.

Hey, Conor Hourihane.

It’s funny, because Hourihane feels like about the fourth-most important member of the Villa attack, but he bagged his 10th goal of the campaign Tuesday night. He got off to a good start with a consolation against Reading and the Norwich City hat trick in August, but he’s now popped up with a goal in five of his 14 league starts in 2018. That’s a good goal-scoring rate for a striker, let alone a central midfielder.

Hourihane’s emergence as a bona fide goal-scoring threat is part of a broader trend, though — Villa are a team with a balanced scoring output, the tell-tale sign of a unit that works great together. Albert Adomah has 14 goals from the left wing, Hourihane 10 from central midfield, and Robert Snodgrass eight from the right wing. That you have to get to fourth on the scoring chart to find a striker, Scott Hogan with six, is a good thing, I think.

The obvious drawback is that, when you really need that goal to get a result, there’s no clear guy you run your attack through to get it. But it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the best attack Villa have had for years, and I think the volume of attacking options

So, about catching Cardiff (and passing Fulham) for second

This is plausible, but unlikely — Experimental 361 gives Villa around a 2-3% chance to go up automatically, while the few bookies offering odds for a top-two finish imply around a 5% chance to do it. Somewhere in this range feels right, because there’s a lot that has to break our way, starting with Villa probably finishing the season on six more consecutive wins. If they do that, they’ll finish the season on 91 points.

Cardiff are currently on 80 points with a game in hand (they have seven matches left), so four wins would put the Bluebirds out of Villa’s reach, with most likely scenario to get Villa into the top two would involving Cardiff finishing the season 3-2-2. That would put them level with Villa on 91 points, but the Claret and Blues would likely finish ahead due to goal differential (Cardiff are currently +29, Villa +27 — but the difference in results would swing that unless Cardiff post a huge win down the stretch and Villa are eking out wins).

Really, we will know within a week whether or not this is something to worry about. Cardiff host Wolves on Friday, then come to Villa Park on Tuesday night. It goes without saying that Villa have to beat Cardiff in the head-to-head match to have any chance of chasing them down, and we’ll absolutely need Wolves to at least get a point in two days’ time. If Wolves win on Friday, the scenario is “easy” — Villa will need to win out, and would need Cardiff to drop points in two of their last five matches. If Wolves and Cardiff play out a draw, the Bluebirds would need to finish the season no better than 3-1-1.

Is that likely, even if Villa win out? I don’t think so — Cardiff’s match in hand is a road game to Derby, but you’d also need at least one of Norwich, Forest, Hull or Reading to get a result against Cardiff. None of those four sides have anything to play for, really, and that doesn’t get into Cardiff’s current form — the Bluebirds’ draw last time out was the first time they didn’t win in nine.

It would also require Fulham to drop two or three points, which given the fact they haven’t lost in the league since December, wouldn’t be a given.

Could it happen? Sure. But if Cardiff win Friday, it ain’t worth worrying about anymore.

On securing a top-six finish

OK, this one is a much rosier outlook, as Villa sit 11 points clear of seventh-placed Bristol City with only 18 points left to win.

I think there’s a good chance that Villa’s current 73 points is good enough for a play-off spot, given how mediocre the rest of the league is outside the top four, particularly the group fighting for fifth and sixth. Millwall have won 13 points in the last five matches to put themselves firmly in the fight, but no other team in the hunt has more than nine points in that same time frame.

While it’s still more likely than not that one or two of the chase pack finishes with at least four wins from six, which could push the cut line to 74 or 75 points, Villa are nevertheless within touching distance here. The proper “magic number” is eight points, but there should be no concerns now about missing out.

Villa did what they needed to against 10 men Tuesday

I don’t like to spend too much time analyzing how well a team plays against 10 men because, like, you should dominate against 10 men. It’s at least good that Villa did, and at least good that they secured a comfortable win.

It was a good break for Villa, though, and perhaps the most important thing that happened was that the scoreline finished 3-0, not 1-0. It’s more likely that goal difference comes into play through a tie with Fulham for third place, not a tie with Cardiff for second, but either way, those extra couple goals could help swing the pendulum and put Villa one spot higher on the table come season’s end.

The next two matchdays will determine the optimal tactical approach

If everything breaks right for Villa with respect to chasing Cardiff over the next week, then Villa should clearly prioritize getting results to try and pull of a miracle to finish second.

Assuming that doesn’t happen, though, Steve Bruce should use the last four matches of the season to evaluate his team, rotate the squad to keep everyone fresh, and see if someone steps up to claim a spot in the team going into the play-offs. Birkir Bjarnason and Scott Hogan stepped up Tuesday night — can we get Jonathan Kodjia firing again before we head into the season-deciding matches? What about Keinan Davis, who could be a good bench option to throw on if Villa are trailing in the second leg?

I wouldn’t want Villa to go quite as far as Huddersfield Town did last year, but rotating out a few starters each match to keep everyone fresh could be more important than trying to win the most points down the stretch.