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xV: Thoughts on Keinan Davis’ strong performance, Villa’s set-piece mining and that referee error

Aston Villa’s English striker Keinan Davis (R) vies for the ball with Sheffield United’s Norwegian midfielder Sander Berge during the English Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United at Villa Park in Birmingham, central England on June 17, 2020.
Photo by CARL RECINE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a mostly numbers-based look at Aston Villa! Today, we analyze a few of the figures from Villa’s 0-0 draw with Sheffield United to re-start the Premier League season.

Keinan Davis did more than enough to keep his place

Yeah, sure, he didn’t score. But Villa played much, much better with him on the pitch than with him off it, and had Anwar El Ghazi’s key chance cross been a little more on-point, Davis would have.

I understand criticizing Keinan Davis’ goal-scoring record, I do. I also think it’s rooted in a football philosophy that’s not grounded in the tactics Aston Villa have employed this season. Don’t buy that? Just look at the breakdown of Premier League goals by position this year for Villa:

  • Strikers: 6 goals
  • Wingers: 7 goals
  • Midfielders: 16 goals
  • Defenders: 4 goals

Dean Smith hasn’t asked his strikers to be the primary providers of goals all season — why would he start now? When Villa have been at their best this season, it was with Wesley bullying defenders up top to help the Claret and Blues carry play, a tactic that occupies defenders and affords more space to Villa’s midfield dynamos of Jack Grealish and John McGinn.

If we’re to judge a striker not by his goal outlay, but by the way Villa played with him on the pitch, starting Davis over Mbwana Samatta again is a no-brainer. For the 69 minutes Davis was on the pitch against Sheffield United on Wednesday, Villa out-shot their opponents 12-2. After Samatta replaced Davis? Blades out-shot Villa.

Conor Hourihane may be in Dean Smith’s plans the rest of the year

Required caveat: I am a Hourihane stan. I am also a fan of good set pieces.

Whether by design or chance, Villa mined set pieces against Sheffield United — of their 14 shots Wednesday, 12 were off set pieces. It’s a tactic that takes Jack Grealish’s unique talent for winning set pieces, and pairs them ideally with good delivery from Conor Hourihane and training-ground investment. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Hourihane accounted for seven of Villa’s 12 key passes in the 0-0 draw.

Villa focusing on winning set pieces is certainly a reasonable tactic, particularly when you look through the stats — Villa’s 10 goals from set pieces are fourth-best in the division, and only two clubs (Bournemouth and Newcastle) have scored a greater percentage of goals from set pieces than Villa. That Dean Smith’s men didn’t score from a set piece against Sheffield United despite a plethora of chances shouldn’t be concerning, though, as Blades are the second-best defensive team against set pieces (they’ve only conceded four goals off set pieces all season).

And while it might’ve been a tactical mismatch against Blades, it certainly wouldn’t be in many of Villa’s upcoming fixtures. Villa’s struggles defending set pieces are well noted (the 14 goals conceded from them are most in the division), but most of their remaining opponents also struggle to defend set pieces — Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Manchester United, Newcastle and West Ham are all among the 10 worst set-piece defenders in the league.

It’s all to say that there’s no reason to panic if you see Hourihane in the XI again this weekend — just this time, it might actually result in a well-set-up goal.

Villa need three points when they put in a good performance

Broadly, I would say two things are true:

  1. If Villa puts in nine more performances on par with last night’s, they probably win enough times to stay up. Sheffield United are a tough defensive team, and Villa snag at least the one goal against most opponents.
  2. Villa aren’t consistent enough to take silver linings from matches they don’t win.

At this point in the season, in the final 10 matches, what good is a strong performance if it doesn’t come with three points? Early in the year, I like to focus as much on “process” as “results” — a team that’s playing well early but not winning points will likely eventually surge; a team that’s playing poorly but winning should fall back to earth by the end of the season.

There’s not enough time for those long-run trends to play out here, though. Villa need points now, and they’ve shown nothing all season that suggests they’re capable of putting in a long run of solid performances. That’s why not getting the three against Blades hurt. Sure, the point helps, and maybe it does eventually keep Villa up, but more likely is Villa going down because this was one of their few good late performances, and it wasn’t enough to win.

Never apologize for a referee’s error in your favor

Don’t agree? Some thoughts for you:

  1. 2010 League Cup final
  2. 2018 promotion play-off final
  3. 2019 Crystal Palace away

We good?

Even in the VAR era — as Villa learned at Selhurst Park in August — sometimes, you just get screwed by the whistle. It happens to everyone, and it’s certainly happened to Villa enough times. The most notable, of course, was at Palace, when a referee’s error absolutely and indisputably took a point away from the Claret and Blues. While I’m not really willing to say the referee saved Villa a point Wednesday (game states!), for my mental health and sanity, I’m happy to treat Wednesday’s point as if it’s the one they should’ve had all along from the start of the season.

A football season is both long enough to get mistakes in your favor and against you, but also short enough that the magnitude of those breaks may not balance out. When you get that mistake that breaks in your way, take it and run — because nobody’s atoning for the ones that go against you.