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xV: Jack Grealish shines as Villa get a perfect first-leg result against Middlesbrough

Aston Villa won 1-0 away in the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final Saturday, and it was Jack Grealish who ran the show for the Claret and Blues

Middlesbrough v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship Play Off Semi Final:First Leg Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Welcome to another edition of Expected Villa, ostensibly a stats-based look at Aston Villa’s results. We do a little bit of that today, recapping Saturday’s 1-0 first-leg victory at Middlesbrough, and a little bit of tactics looking forward to tomorrow night’s second leg. Let’s jump in.

Oh, Tony Pulis

After the match, the Middlesbrough manager had this to say: “I don’t think anybody could say we deserved to lose the game.”

I’m going to raise my hand and disagree here: This was a fully deserved win for Villa, and Boro hardly did anything to suggest they “deserved” more than they got. If you’ve been reading this column all season, you know how much I generally dislike using the word “undeserved” to describe results — unless an incorrect refereeing decision has contributed to the final result, you get what you deserve. For everything I love about xG, at the end of the day, the team that scores more goals deserves to win the game.

The worst thing about it, though, is that even an analytical approach would suggest that Boro didn’t really deserve anything from the match. Middlesbrough spent 76 minutes of Saturday’s contest trailing 1-0, and during those 76 minutes, they generated two shots on target: Britt Assombalonga’s 36th-minute header that was straight at Sam Johnstone, and Daniel Ayala’s relatively harmless header from a corner three minutes later. Even as Villa started to sit back and protect their 1-0 advantage in the second half, Boro couldn’t generate anything to test Johnstone in the Villa goal.

In fact, the best chance of the rest of the match came from a Villa chance, when Robert Snodgrass nearly scored before half-time to give the Claret and Blues what would’ve been a two-goal advantage.

The argument that Boro “shouldn’t” have lost the match is either centered around making the case that Villa didn’t do enough to deserve their goal — which, given Villa scored from a set piece, is an argument I’d never expect Pulis to make — or that Villa were somehow lucky to defend as well as they did Saturday. I don’t think that’s true either.

On the balance of chances, and given Boro were 1-0 down, Pulis’ guys just didn’t do enough going forward. This was a fully deserved result for Steve Bruce’s Villa.

Jack Grealish is wonderful

Grealish is incredibly vital to this Villa team, and it shows in their results. The Claret and Blues have now won 13 of Grealish’s 21 starts this season, against 12 wins in the 26 matches where he wasn’t named to the XI. I’m not going to chat too much more about Jack, since James already did yesterday, but I will say this: I think Jack’s emergence this season into a consistent player is the best on-pitch thing Bruce has done for this club. Stabilizing the dressing room is probably his most important contribution overall, but Grealish needed a manager who believed and trusted in him.

I just never thought that man would be Steve Bruce.

Two matches in, things are set up perfectly for Villa

Villa’s win was of course the best news of the weekend, but Derby County’s 1-0 triumph was also a welcome sight. Going into last weekend’s trip to the blue half of Birmingham, Fulham were unbeaten in 23. Now, they’ve lost two successive matches, helping (alongside their shaky win against Sunderland in the penultimate game of the regular season) dispel the myth that the Cottagers are some super team. Slaviša Jokanović’s guys were on a great run of form and, well, now they’re not.

Of course, the Claret and Blues will have to take care of the second leg for any of it to matter — and you could spot me a five-goal lead and I’m not sure I’d ever feel incredibly comfortable about Villa doing anything — but if they do, they will either (a) not play Fulham or (b) play a Fulham team that’s lost two of their last three matches.

That’s better than the barrel we thought we were likely staring down a month ago.

Villa should prepare to absorb some early pressure, then grow into the match Tuesday

Only coming home with a 1-0 advantage means the tie is still pretty up in the air, and if Boro get an early goal, suddenly all the pressure shifts back to our guys. We’ll be the ones at home, and they’ll be the ones that can play with a weight lifted off their shoulders.

That’s why if Villa come out of the gates a little slowly tomorrow night, I don’t think it’s cause for concern. In an ideal world, Villa can get an early goal to give themselves some breathing room, but ensuring you don’t concede in the first 15 is more important than pouring resources into scoring during those first 15. Once you’ve fended off Boro’s initial charge, that’s when I’d try to get my fair share of chances, because I certainly don’t want to spend 90 minutes trying to park a bus (both for my sanity and Villa’s chances of winning).

In my eyes, though, the perfect performance looks something like this:

  • Villa are defensively resolute for the first quarter-hour mark, soaking up some pressure but giving up no clear-cut chances
  • The match opens up a little bit from around the 15th minute onward, as Villa try to carry play in search of the goal to make it 2-0 on aggregate
  • At the hour mark, Villa start to sit off the ball a little more and rely on the counterattack, seeing out the result at whatever the scoreline is (while we’re here, may I suggest an appearance off the bench by Scott Hogan?)

Either way, this is “fun”

Villa are playing meaningful football in May, and no matter how this ends, that’s pretty cool. There are few things like the anticipation in the build-up to a huge match, and we haven’t experienced that (at least in a positive, not-survival-driven manner) as supporters too often in the past eight years. Tomorrow night is huge. That we have the chance to make it a great night is pretty neat.

I trust the boys are ready to see the task out and get us to Wembley.

Up the Villa.