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xV: Can Villa tread water until Jack Grealish returns from injury?

Aston Villa have only won twice in the two months since Jack Grealish’s injury. They’ve also scored two goals in every home match in that span. Can they do enough to stay in the promotion race until the midfielder returns?

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Aston Villa v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship
Aston Villa have struggled since Jack Grealish’s injury. The midfielder may return by the end of the month — but will Villa be too far out of the promotion race by the time he returns?

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a weekly column about the numbers behind Villa’s results! This week, we look back on the 0-0 draw with Reading, and look ahead to where the Claret and Blues need to be when Jack Grealish returns.

Villa put in a decent shift Saturday, despite the 0-0 result

Early this season, I was highly critical of Steve Bruce after Villa’s 1-1 draw away to Ipswich Town. I contested then that Ipswich might be the worst side in the league (I was right), and a soulless, awful draw against such a bad team was a miserable result for Villa. To be fair to Bruce, I should come in here and similarly criticize Dean Smith for last weekend’s 0-0 with Reading, right?

Well, not exactly.

Sometimes, bad results happen in football when you maybe did enough to win, short of actually putting the ball in the net once. When Villa went to Ipswich early in the season (and played against 10 men for 50 minutes!), there was genuinely little to split the sides. Villa had 10 shots, but Ipswich had nine, eight of which came from within the penalty area. Even after the red card, Villa didn’t dominate — until a late flurry, the Claret and Blues only led the shot chart 5-4 for the first 45 minutes after the sending off.

Villa’s performance was not flawless Saturday at the Madjeski — far from it, probably — but in truth, they probably created enough chances such that most days, they would’ve ground out a good, 1-0 win. They had a 13-7 shots edge, including a 6-3 advantage inside the penalty area, and had two particularly good chances they nearly scored on: Tammy Abraham’s header in the 11th minute that went wide, and Tommy Elphick’s in the 30th that hit the woodwork.

By and large, Villa went away from home and did well to create some chances of their own, all the while keeping their opponent from creating too many quality looks at goal. On the whole, I’d have liked to see a better attacking performance (I think Villa may continue to struggle going forward away from home until Jack Grealish returns), but the biggest cause for concern out of this one is in the table, not on the pitch.

Elphick and Mings formed a strong partnership

I alluded to it above, but Tommy Elphick and Tyrone Mings played a really good centre-back partnership against Reading. They were a combined 4-for-4 on successful tackles, made six interceptions between them, and 68 of their 85 passes targeted the middle or final third. Most importantly, though, they really limited the Reading attack, as Nelson Oliveira’s 22nd-minute chance was the home side’s only shot inside the 18 from open play all match long. Villa’s ability to pick up points here in this stretch will be dependent on the defence’s ability to put in strong performances. I’d give Elphick and Mings another run out against Sheffield United.

How far back will Villa be when Grealish returns?

Above everything else, though, Villa’s February might just be about treading water.

It’s clear that Villa struggle without Jack Grealish — they’ve won just two of the 10 matches without him — and with Villa already as many as seven points back of sixth (if Bristol City or Derby County win their match in hand), staying in and around the race until his return is vitally important.

Can Villa do that, though? Well, the latest report is that Grealish and Villa are targeting the Stoke City match at the end of the month as his return. You’d assume he’d come off the bench against Stoke, which could set him up to make his first start back from injury at home to Derby County on 2 March, which could prove to be Villa’s biggest fixture of the season.

So, what do Dean Smith and Villa need to do in the four matches before Derby? It’s a tough ask to go 2-1-1, but that might be what’s needed to keep up with sixth.

The key for Villa is that their attack needs to keep firing at home — they’ve scored two goals in each of the five home matches since Grealish’s injury. If they can do that against Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion, they’ll probably win at least one of those. If they can keep a clean sheet at either Brentford or Stoke, you’d back them to nick a goal and pick up the three points.

Winning on Friday night would be a big boost to ensuring Villa are still within striking distance once Grealish returns.