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xV: After another dominant win against a promotion rival, how far are Villa from the play-offs?

Aston Villa were 2-1 winners Saturday against Bristol City, a result that moves them into a strong position for securing a play-off spot — something they could do as early as Easter Monday.

Aston Villa v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 23: Conor Hourihane of Aston Villa celebrates after scoring his side’s second goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Leeds United at Villa Park on December 23, 2018 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a look at the numbers behind Villa’s results and future. We take a quick look at Villa’s 2-1 win over promotion rival Bristol City — their eighth straight win — but then quickly pivot toward a look at how soon Villa can secure their spot in the top six (or how quickly they can be right back under pressure).

First, the match

Particularly when you consider that Villa’s came on a dodgy penalty, the 2-1 scoreline makes this match seem a lot tighter than it actually was. It wasn’t, at least in terms of the run of play. Villa got 25 shots off, and put as many on target (11!) as their visitors took. They took 17 shots from somewhere inside the penalty area, though they conceded 8 such chances to their opponents.

This was another dominant, controlling performance against a direct promotion rival, even if the scoreline didn’t reflect it, like it has against Derby County and Middlesbrough. A little more on that in a second.

First, though, two players I was particularly happy with:

  • I thought Conor Hourihane’s performance was really good, even if it was really frustrating. It took Conor six shots — five in the penalty area and two in the 6-yard box — to score, but he got himself in great positions all day long, and was rewarded by scoring what was probably the toughest of those key chances.
  • Anwar El Ghazi made it all possible, though. The Villa winger played eight key passes over the course of the match, including the assist on Hourihane’s goal. The entire Bristol City team played just nine.

There were plenty of other good efforts out there, but those two created their fair share of xG and xA on Saturday, and it was nice to see the link-up produce a goal in the 65th minute.

Now, onto the table…

Villa’s goal differential is their an ace in the hole

Aston Villa’s 77 goals scored (third-best in the Championship) have led them to a clear edge over their competitors: a +19 goal differential. Among the contenders for the last two play-off spots, this figure is a clear best — Bristol City and Derby County are +9, and Middlesbrough are +8. Barring any crazy results the rest of the way, that means that Villa will win any tiebreak with those clubs for fifth or sixth position — and that could become really important for the club as they look toward their clinching scenarios.

The really nice thing is that Villa have built their goal differential, and their play-off candidacy on the whole, against their direct competitors. Villa finish their six matches this season against Bristol City, Boro and Derby with 16 points (5-1-0) and a +14 goal differential. They’ve only conceded twice, both against Bristol City (in a 1-1 draw at their place and a 2-1 win at Villa Park).

The fixture list also gives them a bit of help

We’ve talked before about how Villa’s last two matches — Leeds United away and Norwich City at home — don’t do them any favours. Neither does the fact that both Bristol City and Derby have a match in hand on Villa and the other competitors, and neither does Boro’s easy run-in.

But there’s one key when looking at the table that helps Villa: Bristol City and Derby County are yet to play. That’s important to keep in mind with clinching scenarios as well.

9 points from the last 4 matches secures Villa’s play-off spot, and 8 almost certainly does

If each of Villa’s promotion rivals were to win all remaining matches, here’s where they’d end up on points:

  • Bristol City, 80 points
  • Derby County, 78 points
  • Middlesbrough, 76 points

As we talked, though, both Bristol City and Derby County can’t get to these numbers. In reality, the true maximums are either:

  • 80 points for Bristol City and 75 points for Derby County, if Bristol City win that match
  • 78 points for Bristol City and 76 points for Derby County, if the match finishes in a draw
  • 78 points for Derby County and 77 points for Bristol City, if Derby County win that match

We should focus, then, on the last scenario, which puts the target as high as it can be for Villa. As the Claret and Blues are currently on 69 points, three wins would take them to 78 points and guarantee a spot in the play-off, as only one of Bristol City and Derby County will have the opportunity to get to that number (remember, Middlesbrough can’t get higher than 76).

We talked above about goal differential, though, which means that Villa probably only need to get to 77, a total that would put them no worse than joint-sixth. If Villa finish at 77 points, they’ll come into the home stretch 2-2-0, which means their goal differential must improve to at least +21. If they’re tied for sixth with that point total, it must be with Bristol City, who must finish 4-0-1 (with a loss to Derby). Even if that loss is by just the one goal, the Robins would need to win their other four matches by at least a combined 14 goals to usurp Villa in the table, given the Claret and Blues’ edge on the second tiebreaker, goals for.

It’s possible, but unlikely.

Villa can clinch their spot as early as Easter Monday

The Claret and Blues won’t be able to secure their spot with a win Friday no matter what happens around the Championship, but the following results would secure it by 5 p.m. on Easter Monday:

That would set the table up to be no worse than the below:

  • Aston Villa, 75 points
  • Bristol City, 68 points (max of 77)
  • Middlesbrough, 68 points (max of 74)
  • Derby County, 67 points (max of 76)

But since Bristol City and Derby would still be yet to play, they couldn’t both catch Villa — a loss from either side would put their max under 75 points, while a draw would drop Derby’s to 74.

Because Villa play Millwall at 1 p.m. Monday, it all means that no matter what happens around the Championship on Friday, two Villa wins would have us all sitting at home, watching the results in other matches to see if we can clinch our spot.

That’s a pretty fun place to be in right now.

Villa still need to stay focused, though, and see this out

For all the advantages they appear to have right now, Villa will start to feel the pressure immediately if they drop points at Bolton on Friday. Dropping points to bad teams was the thing that did Villa’s automatic promotion bid in last season, and Villa have two of them coming up on either side of the Easter holiday.

A loss to either Bolton or Millwall, for instance, could require that Villa defeat Leeds and Norwich on the last two matchdays of the season, while a draw could require that Villa get a win against one of them. Even if the Canaries do have the title locked up by the final day, that’s still not a task I’d like to face.

Villa have played themselves into the driver’s seat here, but they must win the “easy” matches (quotes around “easy” intentional) if they’re going to make full use of it. Going into the final two matches with a number of different clinching scenarios — many of which may not involve Villa — would be a lot nicer than knowing you have to get a result at Elland Road on the penultimate weekend of the season.