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xV: Thoughts on squad rotation and Villa’s first ‘six-pointer’ of the year

No matter how early

Aston Villa Training and Press Conference
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 15: Frederic Guilbert of Aston Villa in action during a training session at the Aston Villa Bodymoor Heath training ground on August 15, 2019 in Birmingham, England. Guilbert was left out of the team entirely on the opening day at Tottenham Hotspur, but could easily return to the XI this week for a clash with AFC Bournemouth.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a numbers-based look at Aston Villa! Our second edition of xV this season takes a quick look back at the Spurs result, and turns forward-thinking as Villa host Bournemouth tomorrow.

Dean Smith is going to use his squad

The “doing a Fulham” narrative was thrown for a loop Saturday when Dean Smith named seven starters from the play-off final to his first Premier League XI. An eighth, Jed Steer, manned the bench, while the other three no longer played for the club. The manager took an approach that maximized continuity, rather than integrating a large batch of Villa’s new signings.

It makes perfect sense, but I’m not sure that’s actually the right lens to view the team selection through. Sure, continuity was achieved, but it was also a team that was clearly selected with counterattacking in mind — Smith picking Trézéguet over Jota gave him more pace in attack, while selecting Neil Taylor and Ahmed Elmohamady in defence instead of Matt Targett and Frédéric Guilbert showed a clear preference to shore up the back four, giving away some attacking prowess. Had Douglas Luiz and Marvelous Nakamba arrived at Villa earlier, you may well have seen one of them in the XI instead of Conor Hourihane on Saturday.

In this sense, it’s actually really encouraging to see that Smith feels comfortable enough to move his squad around — Jota, Targett and Guilbert all looked like the first-choice options in preseason, but were all dropped because it gave Villa the best chance of seeing out a result. That thinking, the tactical flexibility from Smith in the game plan, and the fact that Villa do have multiple options at several positions, are all positive signs for Villa’s chances at success.

Thinking about the league in the right way

I wasn’t too worried about Villa’s result last week — while the way the result occurred sucked, I would’ve gladly taken a competitive 3-1 defeat before kickoff. Why? Villa’s opening-day fixture was one of their five toughest of the season, so anything gained would have been a bonus.

As we target the 35-38 points (likely) required for promotion, I think it makes sense to think about the league in four tiers:

There may be some shuffling of teams between those tiers, but in terms of calibre, these are pretty clear-cut breaks. There’s obviously some variability in the “everyone else” bucket, but what really matters from our point of view is that each of those 11 clubs can’t write off relegation as an impossibility. If you look at Bovada’s odds right now, 10 of those 11 clubs have odds shorter than 5/1 to see the drop, with West Ham United at to 10/1. League-wide, the next-shortest odds lie with Leicester City at 33/1, with Everton and Wolves at 40/1.

That means that, generally speaking, 20 of Villa’s matches this season will be against potential relegation candidates, while 18 of them will be against teams targeting a European spot. Those 20 are the ones Villa should be laser-focused on. In the big picture, I think 30 points from those 20 matches is a good target — that would mean Villa need fewer than 10 from their other 18 matches, which should happen.

So, Villa have their first ‘six-pointer’ of the year tomorrow

The first of those 20 matches that will truly define Villa’s campaign comes tomorrow at Villa Park, as the Claret and Blues host AFC Bournemouth. Eddie Howe’s Cherries were unable to beat Sheffield United last week on the opening day, so this is certainly a winnable fixture for Villa. It also starts a manageable stretch for Villa — of their next eight Premier League fixtures, six are against the aforementioned “everyone else” clubs, with contests against Everton and Arsenal sprinkled in.

The term “six-pointer” typically isn’t applied this early in the season, and some would probably object to its use here. But I think it’s fair, in two ways:

  1. Because of their fixture list, if Villa get off to a slow start, they’re likely setting themselves up for months of trying to escape the bottom three
  2. If Villa get off to a quick start, these “six-pointers” are the reason Villa will stay out of the relegation race

Yes, it’s still early in the year, and no, a defeat against Bournemouth certainly doesn’t spell the end of anything. But if Villa are still slow to get points on the board through eight matches, they’re likely in the bottom three as we head toward Christmas — Villa’s next seven matches after hosting Brighton on 19 October are against Manchester City, Liverpool, Wolves, Newcastle, Manchester United, Chelsea and Leicester. That’s hardly a recipe for having a strong record after 15 matches.

As we learned four years ago, getting off to a slow start can wreck the entire season from the get-go, so getting some points on the board early in very winnable matches would be a positive outcome. On the flip side, if Villa start well, they’ll give themselves a cushion going into that touch stretch, and that could see them pull a result or two they wouldn’t otherwise secure — Villa may well play better if there’s not as much pressure to get points.

Villa made a late charge last year to get into this position, but a fast start this year would be a nice outcome.