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xV: Dean Smith’s smart substitutions key Aston Villa’s derby win at Birmingham City

Jack Grealish is getting a lot of deserved credit for having the best day of his life Sunday, but Dean Smith made the right call at the right time to get Villa back on the front foot.

Birmingham City v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 10: Dean Smith, manager of Aston Villa celebrates at full-time during the Sky Bet Championship match between Birmingham City v Aston Villa at St Andrew’s Trillion Trophy Stadium on March 10, 2019 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a look at the numbers behind Villa’s play! Dean Smith’s boys did the double over Birmingham City this year, with a 1-0 away win sending Villa back above their rivals, into ninth place.

Dean Smith pulled the right strings with his subs

In the 63rd minute, Dean Smith made a double switch — on were André Green and John McGinn, off came Albert Adomah and Glenn Whelan. The next four minutes of football included:

  • A Green diving header that was likely the best chance of the match
  • A McGinn missed attempt that fell to Tammy Abraham just wide of the goal-mouth
  • Jack Grealish’s goal

Until the substitution, Villa were being nickel-and-dimed by Blues to the point where they were probably being out-played, with the shot count at 11-3. As soon as Smith made the change, however, the balance of play shifted to Villa, who soon got control of proceedings and scored the winning goal during a 20-minute run where they out-shot Birmingham by a 6-1 margin.

Blues created more chances, but Villa created better ones

Sunday was a perfect advertisement for at least the idea of expected goals.

Blues out-shot Villa by a 14-9 margin, but few would argue that the home side “should have won” the match. That’s because when you consider the quality of chances created, Villa had the biggest chances of the game, with Grealish’s goal (where he was somehow left unmarked and not pressured inside the 18) no better than the fourth-best chance Smith’s side created; Anwar El Ghazi and Tammy Abraham each had good chances in the first half, while Green’s diving header is a certain goal if a Blues defender doesn’t happen to find himself in the right spot.

Of Birmingham City’s 14 shots, half were from outside the penalty area, with none coming inside the 6-yard box. Of Villa’s nine efforts, six were inside the penalty area, with two of them coming in the ever-dangerous 6-yard box.

This has been a hallmark of Dean Smith’s teams at Brentford, and it’s developing into one at Villa. The Claret and Blues were incisive, and when they had the ball, they created chances that mattered. Yes, Villa were let off the hook a little bit by old friend Craig Gardner, but on the whole, they won this match because they created high-quality opportunities.

Jack Grealish is very good

You know this. I wrote about it last week. I love him so much.

Advanced metrics are buying into Villa

Over at Experimental 361 — the site to follow if you’re a stats-minded EFL supporter — they’ve updated their team ratings following this weekend’s fixtures. Villa are now rated as the fourth-best Championship squad by the E-361 ratings, and if you’re an astute observer, you’ll find Brentford a spot ahead of Villa in third. Smith-led Brentford teams have impressed in the metrics in the past, and he’s likely to build Villa in the same fashion: maximize high-quality chances while limiting them for other clubs.

What you will see, though, if you keep reading that page, is a wide-open race for sixth place. There’s a group of 10 clubs given a noticeable chance of a top-six finish by Experimental 361’s simulations, with no club above 30 percent.

The betting markets, too, are falling in line with the idea that there’s no clear favourite for sixth place at this point in time. Bristol City and Derby County remain the most likely, as expected, but the Robins are between 7/5 and 15/8 to make the play-offs, while Derby are at 9/5 or 2/1 at most outlets. Villa (moving toward 4/1) are in a chase pack that the bookies see including Nottingham Forest (most often 4/1) and a surging Brentford (around 7/1), who have a match in hand.

You’ll notice that both the metrics and bookies see Preston North End, Birmingham, Hull City, Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea City all as definite outsiders, despite their similar positions in the table to the aforementioned clubs.

Villa get thrown right back into the fire, though

Dean Smith’s side got no help from the fixture generator this year, as they have to turn around from going away to Blues to head to the City Ground tomorrow night in a crucial six-pointer with Nottingham Forest. This match is huge, and will play a significant role in determining the outcome of Villa’s season — a win would take the Claret and Blues ahead of Forest, while a loss would set them five points back of Martin O’Neill’s side. That would be particularly catastrophic for Villa, who could also fall as many as seven points behind Derby with poor results this weekend.

I think Smith would be wise to rotate his squad just a little bit after the emotionally charged contest on the other side of town Sunday. Green and McGinn’s aforementioned instant impacts should see both of them into the upcoming XI, IMO, and Smith may want to consider getting Jonathan Kodjia involved as well.

There’s a dilemma and a push-and-pull aspect to squad rotation, particularly late in the year. You want to make sure you’re trotting out a relatively fresh team for each match, but with the stakes so high, you also can’t afford to be without too many first-team players. I certainly don’t envy the calls Smith (or any Championship manager) has to make.