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xV: Villa start a vital 50 days Saturday at Bramall Lane

Aston Villa have been pretty good against their relegation rivals and really bad against the Premier League’s big clubs. With eight of the next nine against teams from the “other 12”, it’s not hyperbolic to suggest Villa’s Premier League future hinges on the next few weeks.

Aston Villa Press Conference
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13: Dean Smith head coach of Aston Villa talks to the press during a press conference at Bodymoor Heath training ground on December 13, 2019 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), an irregularly published column about the stats behind Aston Villa. The Claret and Blues just finished up a rough stretch against tough opposition, and while conventional wisdom tell us Villa are build well to survive, the table may be sending a different message.

To understand where (and what) Villa are, you need to understand what this year’s Premier League is

Conventional wisdom and history would tell us two things about a relegation fight:

  1. Teams that get results against their relegation rivals are more likely to survive
  2. Teams that score goals are more likely to survive

The logic behind each of them is pretty easy to understand (and they’re absolutely related). There’s a reason we call matches between relegation rivals “six-pointers” — it hurts you almost as much to lose them as it helps you to win — and by and large, the teams that drop are the ones that struggle to score goals and, by association, struggle to win. I talked about the latter in xV back in August, where I found that in the last three seasons, every team that’s dropped from the Premier League was in the bottom five in scoring, and you really only go down if you’re as bad defensively as, say, 2010/11 Blackpool. Sitting here on 13 December, if we only consider those two points, Villa tick the boxes of a team that should survive their Premier League return.

For a second, let’s pretend that the seven European clubs, plus Leicester City (who sit a deserved second) don’t exist. In this alternate universe, in which we’re only looking at results between the “other 12” (read: relegation-candidate) clubs, Villa look quite successful — their 1.8 points-per-match pace (4-2-2) in such matches is third-best in the group, only bettered by Crystal Palace and Burnley. (Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United match Villa’s 4-2-2 record). Similarly, Villa’s 23 goals scored are the most of any “other 12” side, and their 28 goals conceded sit at the median of the group.

Yet here we are on 13 December, and Villa are only out of the bottom three on goal difference. A year ago, 15 points through 16 matches would’ve had Villa in 14th, five points clear of the drop.

What happened? Ask Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hostpur. You can even ask Chelsea and Manchester City if you’d like — because of the “other 12” clubs, five have at least six points off the “top 8” teams, and no club has a haul as poor as Villa’s 0-1-7 take against those teams (though Burnley are 0-1-6).

Last week, Everton rose from the dead to win 3-1 over Chelsea. Midweek before that, Brighton won over Arsenal at the Emirates, and the previous weekend, West Ham won at Stamford Bridge. Nearly every matchweek, an “other 12” side is taking the full three points off a “top 8” team, as the big clubs stumble over themselves in a race of futility.

How concerned should we be right now? It’s hard to tell, because to me, it’s informed by several questions, including:

  • Will the league settle down in the second half of the season? If so, Villa’s success against fellow “bottom 12” sides will become more influential in the table.
  • Will Villa have more success playing the “top 8” teams at home? Villa will have home matches in 2020 against six of the top 8, only travelling to Leicester and Liverpool.
  • How much is Villa’s success against “bottom 12” sides fuelled by the home-heavy fixture list against such teams? They’re 3-2-1 at home and 1-0-1 away, as they’ve only played away to Crystal Palace and Norwich City from that group.
  • Is Villa’s lack of success against “top 8” down to squad deficiencies, style of play, capitulation, lack of talent, or some combination of those? Which can change? Does it even make sense to change those things?

I don’t know the right answer to those questions right now, but what I will defend is Villa’s approach coming into the year. They built the team to do the things you’re supposed to do in order to survive and — especially given are yet to play two of the three teams below them in the table — it’s important to remember is that Villa sit 17th, a result we should all take in May. Survival is all that matters...

...and this is Villa’s vital stretch

Particularly early in the season, I was concerned about Villa being cut astray by the time we got to mid-December. Things weren’t clicking right away, and I knew Villa had a tough stretch around November — the Claret and Blues just finished playing six of seven against “top 8” teams. All I wanted going to Bramall Lane was to be out of the bottom three or, at the least, within touching distance.

If this run was about treading water, Villa got the job done.

But all tough runs are balanced by easier ones, and Saturday starts Villa’s best chance to rack up points all year — their next five Premier League matches, and eight of the next nine, are against “other 12” clubs. Four of those eight are against Southampton, Norwich or Watford. It’s crucial Villa play well here, because if Villa are able to play as well in these eight matches as they did in the first eight against such clubs, they’ll surge up the table — another 4-2-2 stretch would put Villa on at least 29 points, meaning Villa would be nearing touching distance of survival with 13 matches still to play in the campaign.

If Villa struggle a bit here, though — and away trips to Bramall Lane, Vicarage Road, Turf Moor, the Amex and the Vitality end up being tricky trips for the Claret and Blues — they’re going to be in a tough position entering the final third of their season. Being out of the relegation zone at the start of February is a must, but given their last 13 fixtures feature seven “top 8” teams, Villa probably need to ensure a buffer.