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xV: Using game states to draw the best conclusions from the Bournemouth loss

It’s hard to properly evaluate a match when one team spends an hour down 2-0.

Aston Villa v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 17: Joshua King of Bournemouth scores a goal from the spot to make it 1-0 during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and AFC Bournemouth at Villa Park on August 17, 2019 in Birmingham, United Kingdom.
Photo by Robin Jones - AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a numbers-based look at Aston Villa! This week, we dive back into “game states” and try to figure out which conclusions should be drawn from Villa’s 2-1 defeat against AFC Bournemouth on Saturday.


Matches like Saturday’s are always tricky. When you look at a shot or xG chart, you’ll see a positive story for the Claret and Blues; they nearly out-shot Bournemouth by a 2-to-1 ratio, carried long stretches of play, and generated good chances. They also functionally spent the entire match trailing — Villa conceded a penalty less than a minute in — and spent about an hour down 2-0.

This creates an interesting range of takeaways and reactions. Many took the positives from the last 75 minutes; others bemoaned the mistakes in the first 15. In many ways, they’re both right, and take into account the nuances of the match itself.

Other takeaways, though, miss the point. Most will say Villa “should have won,” while others feel like Villa were the better side. Hell, I’ve even seen some say that Villa were “twice as good” as Bournemouth.

No. No, no, no, no, no. No.

We’ve talked about game states on here before, and hopefully it’s a subject that interests you, because we’re going to do it again! Here’s the basic idea, applied to Saturday’s events:

  1. Bournemouth scored two goals inside the first 15 minutes
  2. In response, Villa pushed forward more aggressively than they typically would, needing two goals to get a result
  3. Bournemouth were OK with this development, and shifted their tactics to sit back and counterattack — as long as they didn’t concede twice, they would win the match
  4. Villa piled up shots that made their statistics look good, but until they scored, Bournemouth had little to no reason to alter their tactics
  5. Because Villa didn’t score to make it 2-1 until relatively late in the match, Bournemouth’s best strategy resulted in them being out-shot 22-12, and being beaten on most xG charts

Fundamentally here, teams base their minute-to-minute tactics off the game state (score, time left, run of play, etc.), not an xG chart. That means the thing we have to remember in analyzing this match is that Bournemouth scored twice before amassing 2 xG, and Villa needed more than 1 xG to score once.

Semi-brief side note: Most individual match xG analysis is ill-fated, for a handful of reasons. In addition to the game state issue we’re running into here, there’s the fundamental issue that all xG models contain a certain amount of error. You can see this play out by looking at multiple xG systems after a match — they’re likely going to report different metrics based on the assumptions used, and none of them will exactly identify the “true” probability of scoring based on the chance type, the quality of the expected assist, the positioning of the defenders, etc. For these reasons, I’m going to try to talk about individual match xG vaguely this year in the column, not specifically. So, when I talk about Bournemouth scoring twice without amassing 2 xG, I’m generally saying, “the quality of chances Bournemouth created in the first 12 minutes of the match would not normally result in two goals,” not, “Bournemouth generated 0.89 xG” or whatever.

This is why I don’t like saying that Villa outplayed Bournemouth, because, given that they led 2-0 after 12 minutes, the Cherries did exactly what they were supposed to at every moment of the match. That’s the whole goal of this thing!

But we’d be unwise to throw the baby out from the bathwater that is Saturday’s match, as there’s still insights to be gained despite the game state caveat. My biggest ones are twofold:

  1. Villa will have to avoid being destructive in future matches to have success. The Claret and Blues didn’t necessarily go 2-0 down because Bournemouth were playing great stuff, they went 2-0 down because they shot themselves in the foot twice. (They were also a little unlucky, given the nature of Harry Wilson’s goal.)
  2. Villa fans should be encouraged that the team was able to mount a push from 2-0 down, and should be encouraged that they largely carried play over the last 75 minutes.

That second point doesn’t mean Villa are good or even necessarily played well Saturday (I think they overall did), but it’s better than the alternative world, where Villa were unable to generate quality chances and seriously threaten Bournemouth. Villa showed a good ability to chase a match Saturday, and given that the consensus opinion seems to be, “How did Villa lose that match?”, I think things aren’t as bad as they could be.

But the broad takeaway of whether or not Villa are good enough to stay in this division probably needs a few more weeks of evidence and, at the very least, more than 41 seconds of football where we can see how Villa play as a home favourite.