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xV: Aston Villa’s fast start is very real — but how long can they keep it up for?

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The Claret and Blues look for their fifth Premier League win on the bounce Friday night against Leeds United — and they’ve been good value for their first four.

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Aston Villa’s Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez during the Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at Villa Park on September 21, 2020.
Photo by TIM GOODE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column about the numbers behind Aston Villa. This year, we’re trying a new format: xV Four Thoughts, where I’ll present four sections, each no more than 200 words. Ready?

Emiliano Martínez is keying Villa’s defensive success

Villa’s defensive improvement since Project restart is well-noted, and encouragingly, it’s also very real — over those 14 Premier League matches, Villa are conceding fewer than 1 xG per match, according to StatsBomb data posted to FBref (2019/20 data). It’s one thing to have a stretch like that where you only concede 13 goals in 14 matches, but it’s another thing entirely when that matches up nearly perfectly with what the shot data would expect, because the former isn’t sustainable without the latter.

An early difference between last season and this one, though? Villa are getting great play out of their goalkeeper, and have out-performed that xGA this campaign because of it. By a comfortable margin, Emiliano Martínez is rated as WhoScored’s second-best goalkeeper to date this season, and between his strong performances and Villa’s clinical finishing in attack, ESPN’s Bill Connelly has Villa as the division’s top side in save percentage margin.

That save percentage margin has Villa as an obvious regression candidate, and we know Villa’s attack will cool off at some point this season — but if they can continue to get great goalkeeping out of Martínez, the impact of that regression might be lessened.

Villa have a big opportunity to functionally secure survival inside of 10 matches

When Aston Villa’s fixture list came out, the one thing I didn’t want to see was a slow start — knowing that the Manchester City match would be moved, I knew Villa’s start was relatively tame; of Villa’s first 14 matches, only four are against sides who finished in the top eight last season.

Given that the Claret and Blues have already navigated two of those four with victories, there’s a very real opportunity here for them to take the pressure off themselves for the remainder of the season. The next six matches for Villa are against Leeds United, Southampton, Arsenal, Brighton & Hove Albion, West Ham United and Newcastle United. Even if Villa go a relatively pedestrian 2–2–2 over those matches, they’re already halfway to the “40-point target” after just 10 matches, and they follow that run up with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Burnley, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, hardly a murderer’s row.

Every season in the Premier League, there’s a relegation candidate who gets off to a bright start and just never enters the scrap, no matter how well they play after matchday 10. If Villa stay in form, they’ll be that team this season.

…but I’m not getting carried away yet

(And it’s not because Villa has made me cynical.)

Here’s the thing about Aston Villa’s start: Each time out this season, Dean Smith has been able to pick his first-choice XI. Ten players have started all four matches for Villa; the only change that Smith has made was entering Ross Barkley for Conor Hourihane once the former signed his loan deal. That’s it. No replacing anyone through injury, no need to rotate the squad.

On the flip, Liverpool were without Sadio Mané on their trip to Villa Park. Jamie Vardy missed Monday’s match, with James Maddison forced to come off the bench. Kalvin Phillips is out Friday for Leeds. This is not to say anything beyond this: Villa have not had their depth tested this season.

At some point, that will happen, and Villa will be forced to take a huge drop-off in talent in the XI. Aside from right wing, where I think Trézéguet and Bertrand Traoré will prove to be relative equals, there’s a sizable disparity between the starter and reserve at every position on the pitch. The true ceiling of this team will be determined by how well Villa can deal with the inevitable injuries that come.

Let’s put a wrap on Villa’s transfer business

That’s a segue, then, to talk about Villa’s transfer business this window.

Last season, my biggest criticism of Aston Villa was that there just wasn’t enough Premier League talent in the team; coming down the stretch, Villa deployed strikers who couldn’t score, an unfit and out-of-form John McGinn as a key player, and a right winger who was never really in the play. I love Conor Hourihane, but if you’re a good Premier League team, he’s a complementary player, not an integral part of your plans.

This is why I love Villa’s transfer business. Yes, Villa didn’t really address their lack of depth as noted above, but they have addressed the lack of top-end talent — the more important of the two. Instead of filling quantity, they got quality — of Villa’s four permanent signings this summer window, Matty Cash’s £14 million transfer fee represents the lowest. Contrast that to last summer, when Villa made 12 permanent signings, and only three of them signed for fees north of that number.

For the first time in what feels like a long time, Villa really do seem solid at every position, particularly when the loan signing of Ross Barkley is included.