Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a stats-based look at Aston Villa! This week, we recap Villa’s winter transfer business.
Villa’s attacking plan doesn’t require goals from strikers
I’ve seen a lot of concern about Villa’s striker depth heading into the last three months of the season, and in general, it makes sense. You’re looking at a striker corps that essentially consists of a new arrival and two youth players.
Aston Villa’s 31 league goals scored is the most among any bottom-half side, and joint-most (with Southampton) among teams outside the current “big eight” (last season’s European sides, plus Leicester). It’s why I scoffed on Twitter when an analyst said Villa will go down because they don’t have enough goals in them — no other relegation rival has scored more than 28, and that team is Burnley.
What’s important to note here, then, is that Villa’s attack isn’t dependent on getting goals from a true striker. Of Villa’s 31 league goals, just 5 (all from Wesley) have been scored from the striker position. In contrast, 16 have been scored by central midfielders, and 3 by defenders.
While Villa’s 4 goals in 3 league matches without a striker in the XI played a part in Keinan Davis and Indiana Vassilev functioning as acceptable reserve options, I think it’s also just down to the way Villa play. Jack Grealish will always be the focal point of this team, and they’ll hopefully only play three more league matches without John McGinn, who’s the No. 2 option in attack when in the team.
Overall, I like Villa’s approach this window
In xV a few weeks ago, I outlined what I wanted Villa to do in this window:
To me, job done.
Long-term, Villa are never going to advance in the Premier League by paying over market value for players in the January window. It’ll never happen. This is almost always an awful time to buy players, and it’s really, really hard to find good value.
Villa made just four signings this window: three replacements for injured players, plus a youth player. Because they utilized the loan market for two of those signings, Villa spent less than £15 million this window. Of the three places where Villa needed a replacement, striker was the one where a permanent move made sense, and for me, Mbwana Samatta (like most signings from Belgium) provides good value.
Did Villa get deeper as a team? No. Do I think they need to? No. Because...
Villa’s squad is deep enough for their remaining fixtures
After Saturday’s trip to Bournemouth, Villa won’t play again for another 15 days (hello, winter break!). If McGinn is able to return for the League Cup final as he’s targeting, he’ll only miss three more league matches. The only mid-week match the rest of the way is Villa’s rescheduled one with Sheffield United, moved because of that pesky cup final.
The fixture congestion that makes depth so important in December and January is pretty much, well, over.
Injuries are always a concern, of course. But think about Villa’s depth as it correlates to their current preferred formation. We’ve talked about striker depth, so I won’t harp on it again here. Villa pair a striker in this formation with two other attack-minded players — between the natural wingers (Anwar El Ghazi and Trézéguet) and the natural attacking midfielders (Jack Grealish and Conor Hourihane), Villa have enough here to mix and match in the event of injury. Two true central midfielders are required, and Smith can pick between Danny Drinkwater, Douglas Luiz and Marvelous Nakamba for these spots right now, with McGinn back in the fold soon. That’s good depth, especially considering Hourihane can slide back if needed. At fullback, Villa have the normal complement of two preferred options on either side. With James Chester leaving, Villa do only have four centre backs for three spots, but in case of an injury crisis, Villa can always switch back to a 4-3-3 (especially once McGinn returns), or they can move Neil Taylor or Frederic Guilbert inside.
It’s all to say that if depth is the thing that dooms Villa this season, it’s probably down to an 18-karat run of bad luck. Whether or not quality will doom Villa this year is another discussion, but given the club’s net spend over the summer, I think it was always unlikely Villa were blowing the £30+ million required to bring a “proven” player into the team.
The performances recently have been strong. Villa just beat a soon-to-be Champions League team over two legs to reach a major cup final. They’ve scored late winners in each of their last two home matches. They’re out of the bottom three, despite what some supporters and pundits would make you believe. Guys like Luiz, Nakamba and Trézéguet look like they’re starting to find their feet in this division. Grealish and Matt Targett are showing wonderful chemistry in this formation.
Would I have preferred a couple more signings this window? Absolutely. I’m a fan who likes his clubs signing shiny new toys, and it’s not my money to spend when they spend it.
But Villa didn’t need to blow everything up this winter, and they are not a club in crisis. Reject that narrative and back these boys over these next few months.