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xV: Can Aston Villa win the Premier League’s crawl away from the bottom?

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Aston Villa have probably looked the best of the Premier League’s bottom five since last week’s restart — so let’s pump the brakes on assuming doom and gloom so quickly.

Newcastle United v Aston Villa - Premier League
Ahmed Elmohamady of Aston Villa celebrates with Kortney Hause after scoring his team’s first goal during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Aston Villa at St. James Park on June 24, 2020 in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom.
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a numbers-based look at Aston Villa! The Claret and Blues inched closer to getting out of the bottom three Wednesday with a 1–1 draw at Newcastle United, the only positive result for a bottom-five side this matchweek.

Please (for the love of everything) stop sending Villa down every time they don’t win

If I had a dollar (or a pound, or a Euro, or a loonie, or whatever your local currency is) for every time I saw someone say, “that’s us down” after Villa don’t win a match, I’d be rich. It’d be beautiful.

I’m not, of course, but it’s a sentiment that I can never agree with for a few reasons:

  1. Relegation battles are often “won” on the backs of having one or two more competent outings than your rivals in a 38-match season, not based on levels of incompetence in individual matches; popping up with a random win here or there would completely shift the dynamic.
  2. I think the reaction from Villa Twitter after a poor result is still fundamentally rooted in the vision of a club that doesn’t really exist anymore. I can’t imagine being a Bournemouth supporter and freaking out because my team lost 2–1 to Chelsea.
  3. Have you seen the teams around Villa?

No, seriously, have you seen Bournemouth, Norwich City, Watford and West Ham United? Here’s my thoughts:

They’re all awful! A series of facts about those four clubs in the eight matches they’ve played since the restart:

  • Aston Villa have scored more goals (two) in their three matches than those four clubs combined (one) in eight.
  • Aston Villa have more points (two) than those four clubs combined (one).
  • Aston Villa have kept the only clean sheet among the bottom five; the other four clubs have been outscored by a combined 13–1.
  • No bottom-five side has scored from open play since the restart.
  • Those four clubs have lost matches to Burnley, Crystal Palace, Everton and Southampton.

Villa have probably been the best team of this bunch since the restart — and it’s hard to argue that Villa haven’t at least been better than Bournemouth, Norwich and West Ham. Those teams are losing to mid-table sides, not drawing them; they’re struggling to get a foothold in matches; they’re all over the place in one area of their game when compared to another.

Villa, in comparison, have largely looked the part of a competent, if flawed, lower-mid-table side since the restart. They controlled most of the game against Sheffield United, and went to Newcastle and certainly had their spells away from home.

Will that correlate to enough points to survive? I don’t know — but neither do you. There’s reason to be optimistic, and reason to be pessimistic. But no matter how rough Villa’s next three fixtures are, they’ve looked a lot closer to popping up with a key win or two than the teams around them. A couple sides down here are going to find those wins — at this point, who’s more likely than Villa?

Let’s talk about Conor Hourihane, I guess

I typically don’t need an invitation to talk about the Republic of Ireland midfielder, but his match-tying assist Wednesday at Newcastle United gives me an actual reason to this week.

Here’s the thing: I love Conor. I won’t argue he’s a great Premier League player or that he should be the first name on the team sheet — I think he’s the fourth-best central midfielder at the club, honestly — but I will argue that he’s underappreciated by a large chunk of the Villa fan base. Look, I get it; particularly against sides with better talent, Hourihane is often a guy who gets lost in the wash of the match a little, unable to make much of an impact.

Here’s where that criticism falls flat to me, though: Aston Villa don’t have 10 other outfield players who will be more involved in the play than Hourihane.

Consider Villa’s wingers. In 70 minutes against Newcastle, Anwar El Ghazi and Trézéguet combined for 48 touches. In the last 20 minutes, their replacements (Keinan Davis and Hourihane) combined for 44. Hourihane’s 27 touches alone bettered his replacement in the team (Trézéguet’s 21) in 50 fewer minutes of play.

When Villa play 4-3-3, they’re by defult playing with at least one passenger in the team, two if both wings are manned by a natural winger and Jack Grealish is starting in the middle.

If you’re going to be forced to play with guys who don’t help carry play anyway, why not pick the best one? Hourihane’s 85 percent pass completion rate is the best on the squad, his 1.4 key passes per game are second-best behind Grealish, and he’s head-and-shoulders the best set-piece taker on this squad, as evidenced by his assist Wednesday.

And remember, Aston Villa have all the makings of an elite set-piece team. They have the best set-piece winner in the league, put great height on the pitch, and in Hourihane, have a guy who’s capable of providing dangerous deliveries. Their record would agree — Villa’s 12 goals from set pieces are joint-second-best in the division. It is the one attacking strength of this team, so they should play to it!

Where should Hourihane play? I don’t know. It’s tough when Grealish, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn are all likely penciled into the team already. I felt the diamond 4-4-2 Villa played in the closing stages Wednesday was a good path forward, and the concept of playing a 5-2-2-1 is also pretty intriguing. But I also wouldn’t mind just putting Hourihane on the left wing of a 4-3-3 and allowing Grealish to play more centrally. It’s not like Villa are getting anything from that wing when Trézéguet plays, so if you’re going to stick 4-3-3, why not just go all-in and get one of your best attacking players on the pitch? (On a similar note, I’d think about getting Ahmed Elmohamady in the team as well to whip in crosses from the right side.)

At the end of the day, Villa should find a way to get their best 10 players on the pitch. For better or worse, Hourihane’s one of those — Trézéguet isn’t. Figure it out, Dean.