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xV: After wins over Everton and Crewe, we’re finally starting to learn something about Villa

Villa’s first two matches didn’t give us much insight into what the team will look like this season. Their two most recent, though, have shown some potential strengths.

Aston Villa v Everton FC - Premier League
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23: Wesley of Aston Villa celebrates with team mates after scoring his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Everton FC at Villa Park on August 23, 2019 in Birmingham, United Kingdom.
Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a numbers-based look at Aston Villa! The Claret and Blues have won twice in the last week, which is neat and good!

Villa forged a path forward against Everton

Aston Villa’s first two matches of the season didn’t tell us much. On the opening day, Villa played away to Tottenham Hotspur, a match where they were never going to be implementing their “standard” tactics. The next fixture, a home outing against AFC Bournemouth, seemingly offered a glimpse into what Villa would be. But the club conceded a penalty in the first 45 seconds of the match, and trailed 2-0 before 15 minutes were up, taking any tactical plan and turning it on its head.

A week ago, we finally got a glimpse into Aston Villa in a more “normal” environment, and I’ll admit, I really liked what I saw. Playing a higher-rated side in Everton, Villa ceded possession of the ball effectively, hitting well on the counterattack to create a handful of high-probability chances, two of which they scored for a 2-0 scoreline. In defence, Villa were stout and kept Everton from creating too many dangerous chances, despite their 65% possession and 12-7 edge in shots.

Perhaps the best way to describe Villa’s performance is this: their two goals were scored one-on-one with the keeper from great counterattacking football. Everton’s two “great chances” were:

  • A shot from the edge of the 18 off the woodwork (that I think Tom Heaton had covered if it was on target)
  • A volley from a cross

Villa created the match’s two best chances, and honestly, you could make the case they created the three best (Wesley’s second attempt in as many minutes that was blocked by the defender).

If Villa play the same tactics they did against Everton 10 times, they maybe win three, maybe draw four, and lose three. Sometimes that style of play works out, and other times it doesn’t. But if you can guarantee me a couple more results playing this way against Everton, Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers or even Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United, I’ll gladly take them.

We should learn more about Villa tomorrow at Crystal Palace

This should be interesting, right? Villa are playing away Saturday to a Palace team that, all else equal, is comparable in talent. With it being at Selhurst Park, will Dean Smith employ the same type of counterattack-focused football he did against Everton? Or since Palace aren’t as strong as Everton, will Villa try to have more of the ball and look a bit more like the squad we saw last season?

For me, there’s benefits and drawbacks to both systems, but I’ll admit, I wouldn’t mind seeing Villa develop a primary counterattacking identity away from home and against top sides, as I think Wesley’s hold-up play and Grealish and Jota’s vision can play really well in that type of system. Regardless of how Smith chooses to play, though, I think we can expect some tactical flexibility within Villa’s identity this season — and that’s a really nice place to be.

This squad is quite deep

The last time Villa were in the Premier League, I remember dreading matches like Tuesday’s. Away to Crewe Alexandra, with a near-fully changed squad, was the type of match that almost always seemed to lead to an embarrassing defeat for Villa — there were always enough guys on the pitch for Villa in those matches closer to League Two calibre, not Premier League.

Enter the 2019/20 Villa squad, which has turned the narrative and feel of an early-round League Cup match on its head. Dean Smith was able to rotate nearly every player in the XI from the win over Everton, and he was able to do it with a Premier League-calibre player at each position. No Douglas Luiz? We’ve got Marvelous Nakamba. No Jack Grealish? Conor Hourihane will bag a brace. Even Keinan Davis looked like he’ll continue to push for inclusion in the Villa team as the back-up striker.

One of the biggest things that can wreck a survival campaign is injury. But when I look down the substitutes list tomorrow and see guys like Hourihane and Nakamba; Ezri Konsa and Ahmed Elmohamady, I fear that a little less.