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xV: Thoughts on Villa’s transfer policy, competition priorities, and game states

Dean Smith and the club hierarchy are in the midst of big decisions that will impact Aston Villa’s season.

Aston Villa Unveil New Loan Signing Danny Drinkwater
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: Danny Drinkwater of Aston Villa poses for a picture at Bodymoor Heath training ground on January 07, 2020 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a stats-based look at Aston Villa! Today, we bounce around a few subjects, from the transfer markets to game states and competition prioritization.

Danny Drinkwater is a low-risk, short-term signing

…which is exactly what Aston Villa should be after this window.

As a general rule of thumb, I don’t like buying in January. Most clubs have some form of target in mind for the rest of their season, and they use that to inflate transfer prices. Just think about your reaction to Manchester United’s interest in Jack Grealish — Villa probably wouldn’t take £100 million for him, because selling Grealish would likely mean relegation.

Villa have one primary purpose this window: secure survival. That’s it. If Villa didn’t have key injuries to Wesley, John McGinn and Tom Heaton, they probably wouldn’t be making more than one or two signings in the market, and their business should reflect this. Sure, if Villa have the opportunity to make a big-time signing that helps now and down the road, they should take it and be willing to pay — Krzysztof Piątek is the type of guy who comes to mind here — but if not, it’s wise to try and avoid paying big fees for short-term signings.

That’s why I like the Drinkwater signing a lot. While some get caught up in his wages — even though Villa aren’t paying the full £110,000-per-week amount — it’s important to keep in mind that Villa have avoided a transfer fee here. I’d guess Villa’s total financial outlay to bring Drinkwater in is somewhere in the ballpark of £2 million, and when you consider that Villa are playing for a survival worth around £100 million, suddenly that doesn’t seem like much at all.

If it doesn’t work out at the end of the day, Villa will have much bigger issues than the couple million quid they spent to bring Drinkwater in.

Dean Smith was right to punt the FA Cup, but should make tonight a priority

Villa looked wise after Fulham drew Manchester City in the next round, but at the end of the day, the Claret and Blues couldn’t afford to prioritize the FA Cup given both their League Cup progress and Premier League status. Is it unfortunate the team full of reserves couldn’t put in a better showing? Absolutely. Is that an issue for the club? Not really, in my eyes. Villa’s reserves consist of a few players — Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury good examples — who can only be complementary players at this level. When they’re asked to carry the match for you, of course it’s going to go poorly.

All that said though, I’m hopeful that (and trust that) Villa will put forth a strong team in the League Cup semi-final first leg against Leicester City. Villa haven’t won a major title in 24 years. You absolutely play to break that drought, especially given the two League Cup legs don’t fit that poorly in your fixture list.

Villa’s first-choice stars will have had a full week of rest in build-up to this semi-final, and they can play cautiously and conserve energy with the away leg first. The Premier League opponent we’re all concerned about Sunday is Manchester City — a team that’s also still in the League Cup and that you’re unlikely to beat in the first place.

Really, what’s the worst-case scenario for this week? Villa get battered at Leicester and lose a Premier League match to Manchester City? In this world, you’ve lost out on league points you weren’t expecting, and you can then punt the second leg in a few weeks.

It also helps that Villa have a run coming up where they have two of three weekends off — they’re out of the FA Cup on 25 January, and 8 February marks Villa’s half of the Premier League’s “winter break.”

Go try to win the damn thing. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

Do you want to talk about game states again?

Let’s think back to New Year’s Day, when Villa got a much-needed 2-1 win at Burnley. Villa dominated the first half, got two goals, and generally defended well to keep Burnley at bay and secure the three points.

If you looked at an expected goals map though, you may conclude that Villa were lucky to win:

Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. This match, though, showed a couple of the limitations of single-match xG:

  • Look at how small Wesley’s goal is in the chart. It might’ve been the best chance of the day for either side, as he was 1-on-1 with the keeper from that spot, but doesn’t even register as one of the five highest xG chances.
  • The single-match xG calculation doesn’t consider “game states,” which we’ll talk through.

For those that are new, “game states” is the concept that you have to consider the scoreline (e.g. “game state”) in play when a team is generating or conceding chances. A team ahead will naturally attack more, and a team behind will naturally attack less. Let’s review:

Who had the better of play at 0-0? Villa. The Claret and Blues scored on a great chance in the 27th minute when Wesley, but they easily could’ve been ahead in the 10th minute, when Jack Grealish’s goal was called back for a contentious offside, or in the 19th, when Villa worked a double-chance for Wesley and Douglas Luiz. Burnley were out-shot 5-2 at this game state, only producing one chance of note.

Who had the better of play at 1-0? Villa, again. Each team only created one shot during these 14 minutes; Burnley’s was an Ashley Barnes attempt from 30 yards out, while Villa’s was Grealish’s actual goal from inside the 18. While Jack’s goal had a high degree of difficulty, it was nevertheless a much better chance than Burnley had.

Note: After 41 minutes, Burnley were down 2-0 and had created just three shots and one genuine chance.

Who had the better of play at 2-0? Burnley, and this is absolutely in line with our expectation given the game state. Burnley out-shot Villa by a 17-3 margin at 2-0, running up the xG for the longest time without, well, actually scoring until that 17th shot, Chris Wood’s goal.

This is where interpretations can differ and we can bring context in. On one hand, Burnley probably should’ve buried one of their chances sooner and changed the game state early in the second half. On the other, Villa didn’t have too much of a reason to really shift tactics until Burnley actually did bury one of those chances, as tactics are much more decided by actual goals than expected ones.

Who had the better of play at 2-1? Villa. There were only two shots in the final 15 minutes of play, but both were taken by Dean Smith’s men, who kept Burnley from even registering a shot with the match on the line.

Villa were the better side at three of the four “game states” and spent about 60 of the 90 minutes in the ascendancy.

In truth, the best take probably sits somewhere in the middle here. Villa showed promising signs by dominating an opponent away in the first half, and when the match got to 2-1, they completely suffocated any chances Burnley tried to create. Those are both great signs that show Villa were deserved winners. At the same time, though, they probably made their life harder than it needed to be in the second half with lax play at 2-0 that eventually buried them; against a more clinical opponent, the situation may have been different, and Villa may have drawn.

It’s why context is always important when presenting statistics!