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xV: Aston Villa can’t defend and they have no identity, which are both bad things

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Aston Villa are outshooting their opponents by a decent margin this season, which is generally good, except when the defence is bad. Also, what is this team trying to be?

Burton Albion v Aston Villa - Carabao Cup Second Round Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column generally about the numbers behind Villa’s results.

A quick personal note

It’s been a while since I wrote, and if you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me chatting Aston Villa less often. There’s a handful of different reasons for this:

  1. It’s college football season, so a high number of my Saturday mornings are now spent drinking cheap beer in parking lots. College football is the most entertaining thing in the world, and for three months, Notre Dame football is all I really care about. As a result, I‘m not always around watching Villa (and probably won’t be this week).
  2. Villa isn’t fun any more. I‘m not sure I remember the exact thing that was the tipping point, but I’ve muted most Villa-related words on Twitter and it’s really been a wonderful thing for my mental frame of mind and quality of life. At some point, this club just became incredibly toxic on social media, with every little thing either being Steve Bruce’s fault or some thing that Steve Bruce is unfairly persecuted for. Against Reading, for instance, there wasn’t a place for a nuanced “sometimes things happen and you control games and don’t win them” take or even a “Bruce could’ve done some things better there, but the players also should’ve taken another chance and put the game to bed” one. It was either “this result is why Bruce should be sacked” or “you’re irrational for thinking Bruce should be sacked,” which is not at all healthy. Hell, even during the week, you’ll see fans bickering four days after a match, alternatively calling Steve Bruce a “dinosaur” or rolling out the “90 minutes from promotion” idea.

I suppose this is a general thing on the internet, because nuance was lost a long time ago through this medium. As a fan of nuance, I think it sucks. In fact, I’ll insert a quick nuanced take: Steve Bruce is a good manager, but a bad manager for the specific job at Aston Villa.


I’ve talked to a couple U.K.-based Villa fans, and I think this is a bit of a syndrome of only interacting with other Villa fans via social media, which is kind of toxic on the whole, and a little bit a syndrome of how football is when you’re in a promotion push, where every result is crucial. Most matches, I either walk out relieved that Villa won or upset they didn’t, which is not a healthy way to follow sports.

I’ve taken a bit of a step back with the level to which I care about or think about Aston Villa, which has been good for me. All of that said, I’m going to be writing on a weekly basis again at 7500 here, which I’m looking forward to. It might be a healthier place to chat about the club.

Anyway, to the analysis:

Villa’s defence is awful

I haven’t calculated the specific numbers here, but if you head over to Experimental 361 and check out the game xG logs, then add them up, you’ll notice that Villa roughly have the same number of xG over the course of the year as their opponents. That’s indicative of an average team, I guess, without getting into any adjustment for the opposition faced.

This is already not great, and it’s particularly not great when you recognize that Villa are outshooting their opponents by 3.5 shots per game, yet come out around level on the overall xG chart. That’s really bad! One of Villa’s strongest strengths last season was that they generally did a good job of limiting opponents to shots from outside, or at the edge of, the penalty area. The xG/shot disparity shows that generally isn’t happening this year (as does the fact that Villa have the joint-third-worst defence in the league).

Is this because they’re playing a defensive midfielder at centre back, a centre back at right back, and a right back at left back? It’s hard to say, Steve. Glad you let one of three senior centre backs leave on loan with no immediate replacement lined up, though. (Side note: Steve Bruce’s loyalty to letting first-reserve centre backs leave is absurd. Selling Nathan Baker to bring in an expensive one-year rental last season was absurd, and it’s directly led to the club’s crisis. We then exacerbate it by letting Tommy Elphick, the only recognized centre back not in most supporters’ starting XI, leave on loan.)

Good news: Aston Villa aren’t yet a finished product

Bad news: Under Steve Bruce, Aston Villa are never going to be a finished product.

This is the issue. We’re nearly two years into Bruce’s tenure, and there’s no actual cohesion to any of this. Why is Tammy Abraham at the club? He’s good. Why are Anwar El Ghazi and Yannick Bolasie here? The same, probably. Since Villa have dropped into the Championship, there’s been no thought put into the recruitment policy beyond “get good players and figure out the rest later.”

The problem is that Villa have never actually figured out the rest later — even when Villa have played well under Steve Bruce, it’s largely been because individual players carry them, not because there’s some tactical plan in place to build a team in a certain likeness.

Football isn’t like other sports, where there’s often a limited talent base to draw from. In basketball or Australian rules football or whatever, if you can get your hands on a really good player, you take him. You don’t have to do that in football. There’s thousands of players across the world who are good enough to play for Aston Villa, and the club only need to find, like, 11 of them each Saturday (and every other Tuesday). This is the benefit of a sport that’s played, often religiously, in the majority of the world’s 200-some countries. Going abroad to get El Ghazi was a step in the right direction, but it’s disheartening that Villa continue to build with “let good players do good things” be the actual game plan, because the squad could’ve been so much better (for less money) with a real plan.

I don’t know, maybe Bolasie and Abraham are the dudes that Bruce has been waiting on to actually adopt a style of football — literally any style of football. Somehow I doubt that.