Welcome (back!) to Expected Villa (xV), a column on the numbers behind Aston Villa’s results. Today, we look at two spots where Villa have been dire this season — and how both are crucial for their Premier League survival.
Aston Villa are back tomorrow. It’s a weird thought, really, but here we are: the club is about to face a crucial 10-match stretch, one where they certainly need a handful of wins if they’re going to stay up.
To do that, they’re going to have to reverse a pair of worrying trends:
1. Villa must snatch points off their top-half opponents
It’s been a weird Premier League season. Villa really haven’t been part of that.
As it stands at the restart, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are all on pace to finish with point totals in the 50s, and fourth-placed Chelsea are on pace for just 63. At that number, they’d be the “worst” club to finish fourth in 15 years (Everton in 2004/05), and this season will surely mark just the second time in the last eight seasons the final Champions League spot would go to a club with fewer than 70 points (Manchester City in 2015/16).
They’re numbers associated with one key trend: Teams who “shouldn’t” be taking points off the “big” clubs have been doing so all year. Except Villa.
Split the table between ninth-placed Arsenal and Burnley, who sit 10th. I’m not splitting the table here because there’s a gulf between the two sides (the gap is one point), rather because of the clubs that sit either side of that divide — the top nine in the current Premier League table includes the seven clubs playing in Europe this year, Leicester City (who sit a deserved third), and Sheffield United.
Aston Villa are 0-1-11 against those nine teams this year. Six of their remaining 10 matches come against those clubs, starting with Blades tomorrow and Chelsea on Sunday.
One of the things that’s been tough to discern, though, is whether Villa just have structural issues against these clubs, or if the order of fixtures is a big conflating factor. Remember: Villa have played just one home match against the teams sat fourth through ninth in the table. Five of their remaining six home matches are against such clubs.
Are Villa really unable to beat these teams? Or were they simply unable to grind out away results, and would fare much better in the reverse fixtures?
This is the easiest argument to make in favor of the idea that behind-closed-door fixtures are going to hurt Villa — that these six remaining home matches were going to be so crucial.
But, another theory:
2. Villa must reverse their dire away form
What if Villa aren’t a good home side? What if they’re just an awful away one?
The Claret and Blues are 2-2-11 this season away from home, the second-worst record in the division. By and large, it hasn’t mattered if who they play away is good, bad or somewhere in the middle — Villa suck away from home.
What if the removal of home advantage causes a reversal in Villa’s away form? Where the home fixture list is tough — it’s five of the top nine, plus 11th-placed Crystal Palace — the away slate is tamer; aside from a trip to Anfield, Villa’s remaining away opponents are all relatively weak (Everton, Newcastle United and West Ham United).
Would I trade a bit of an advantage against Blades tomorrow or Chelsea on Sunday to get one when Villa head to East London on the last day? Absolutely.
By the way, reversing one trend but not the other probably won’t cut it. My dad asked me a few weeks ago how many wins I thought Villa needed to stay up, and I landed on four as the bare minimum. It’s a number that both underscores the urgency to fix these trends, but also the need to fix them both.
If Villa don’t win away the rest of the season, they’d need to go at least 4-0-2 at home to meet my number. That would mean turning an 0-1-11 mark against the top nine into no worse than a 3-0-2 finish. On the flip, if Villa can’t start getting results against the top clubs, they leave themselves no margin for error in their other four matches — they’d need to be a perfect 4-0-0 against Palace, Everton, Newcastle and West Ham to meet the 37-point target I’ve set.
Getting off to a good start tomorrow against Blades with a win would go a long way toward making this path look a little less daunting.