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Expected Villa: Analyzing the Claret and Blues’ first three points of the year

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Aston Villa got off to the right start despite a generally lacklustre performance Monday night in Hull-upon-Kingston.

Aston Villa v West Ham United - Pre-Season Friendly
WALSALL, ENGLAND - JULY 25: Aston Villa goalkeeper Jed Steer in action during a friendly match between Aston Villa and West Ham United at Banks’ Stadium on July 25, 2018 in Walsall, England.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

It’s time for another season of Expected Villa (xV), 7500 to Holte’s post-match column on the statistics behind Aston Villa’s most recent result. The title’s a play on the concept of expected goals (xG), perhaps the most ubiquitous “advanced metric” these days in football. For a quick primer on xG, you can check out this video SB Nation made last year.

The Claret and Blues kicked this season off with a 3-1 win away to Hull City, so let’s dive into some key numbers.

Three points are three points

I am admittedly starting this column off for 2018/19 with something it’s really not designed for, which is talking about actual goals. Aston Villa scored two more times than their opponents Monday night, which gave them three points.

Anyway, the key here is that Villa’s promotion hopes (or automatic promotion hopes) have been seriously dented the last two seasons by poor starts. Roberto Di Matteo’s slow start in 2016 got him sacked and ultimately left Steve Bruce with too much ground to make up in a season where about everything went wrong, then Bruce’s slow start of his own in 2017 was the difference between finishing in second place and going up, and finishing fourth and entering the play-offs. It is really, really rare for a team to get off to a prolonged slow start and finish top two, and Villa have at least gotten opening-day points for the first time since relegation. The opening day is often odd, and it’s nice to get through it with the full complement of points.

The other key for Villa this early season, though, is that their opening 16 fixtures are exceedingly easy. Of the eight teams that started the campaign with better promotion odds than Villa at Sky Bet, the Claret and Blues only play two of those teams, Brentford and Swansea City. Even better, they play both sides at Villa Park.

This isn’t to say that any Championship match is easy, because we’ve absolutely learned it isn’t, and it isn’t to say that said eight squads are going to be the only other competitors (at least one dark horse will emerge), but not all runs are made equal, and this is a wonderful opportunity for Villa to get out ahead of the pack and put pressure on opponents. This will really be key because in November and December, Villa have an eight-match run where they play seven of the top eight promotion contenders (only excluding Brentford), plus the derby match with Birmingham City. On paper, it’s genuinely the toughest prolonged spell I can ever remember Villa having, so it’s key they enter that run in a strong league position.

Villa will need to improve, though

While it got three points, Monday wasn’t the best of performances for the Claret and Blues. Alan Hutton acknowledged it in his post-match interview and said Bruce wanted the squad to play with a better tempo, so at least everyone recognizes it. Home to Wigan Athletic on Saturday should give them a good chance to take more initiative and ramp up the pressure.

But yeah, the first half particularly wasn’t inspiring. Villa were outshot on the night 11-9, and it’s not like that was because Hull were playing from behind in the last 15 minutes — the Tigers outshot Villa 7-4 in the first half.

That said, the defending was pretty alright

Hull truly had one big chance, clear shot on goal all night, and it wasn’t the one they scored on. The Villa defence was opened up in the 15th minute for Jarrod Bowen to have his shot expertly saved by Jed Steer, but other than that, Villa limited their opposition to bit-part shots. Of the other 10 Hull City shots, only three were from within the penalty area — two were blocked, and the other was high and wide from the edge of the 18-yard box. This was a particularly solid strength of Villa last season, largely limiting opponents to shots through traffic or from shots outside the penalty area. That’s good, xG-based defending.

Villa were, of course, undone early with a really fluky goal, which is a thing that happens in football sometimes. And it’s worth remembering that Hull had another bit of play that led to what looked like a great chance until the assistant put his flag up to signal offside.

A word on Jed Steer

While we’re here, part of me wishes Steer was being given more of a chance to make the No. 1 shirt his own, because I thought he did really well Monday night and the impression I got was that he was solid a few years back on loan at Huddersfield Town.

That said, promotion is big business, and the goalkeeper is the goalkeeper. There’s no “hey, let’s change formation to get Steer on the pitch and we can revert if it doesn’t work” for the goalkeeper like there is with a midfield or forward prospect. You always play one of them, and making sure you have the best one you can is a plus. It’s an odd position in that way.

I feel for Steer, but Villa don’t really have the time to afford waiting around to see what they’ve got in him.

Villa fought back to win the points, which is good

For all of the things about Bruce that bother me, he’s instilled a completely different attitude in the Villa squad over the last 22 months. I remember watching Villa all the time getting stats about how many matches it was since Villa had last come from behind to win.

That statistic is currently zero.

How about Alan Hutton?

Hutton scoring was the perfect way to cap off an odd night. Hull’s goal was super odd, and if you had money on Tommy Elphick, Ahmed Elmohamady and Hutton to all score Monday, congratulations on your winnings.

Sometimes you have to find odd ways to win odd football matches, and what I hope is that Hutton’s goal, and the celebrations that followed, can lift this squad and take it forward. We’ll see where it goes, but Villa closed the match pretty strong on the front foot. A similar mentality should fetch three points next time out.