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xV: Set pieces and defensive stability have Villa 90 minutes from Premier League survival

Villa’s survival hopes looked dim a couple weeks ago — but they head into Sunday’s final day as the favourites to stay up, thanks to strong play in two phases of the game.

Aston Villa v Arsenal FC - Premier League
Conor Hourihane of Aston Villa during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Arsenal FC at Villa Park on July 21, 2020 in Birmingham, United Kingdom.
Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column about the numbers behind Aston Villa’s result. The Claret and Blues head to the final day… out of the bottom three? It’s remarkable. How have they done it?

Aston Villa’s set piece prowess is carrying them toward safety

Douglas Luiz has been Villa’s best player since the restart, but arguably, Conor Hourihane has been their most important.

Before the restart, Villa were a good set-piece team — their 10 goals from those opportunities in the first 28 matches were fourth-best in the division. Since the restart? They’ve been elite, largely through Hourihane’s ace deliveries. Five of Villa’s six goals since the restart have come from set pieces (the sixth coming not too far after one), which means that the Claret and Blues have run their total to 15 set-piece goals in 37 matches. Only Manchester City and Liverpool (two pretty damn good teams) have more.

If you follow this column, I wrote back in 2018 about why I think set pieces are the biggest market inefficiency in football, and more recently, I wrote after the Sheffield United loss about how (and why) Villa should continue to turn to set pieces as a core attacking tactic:

Of the five clubs on that list they’ve played, the Claret and Blues got a set-piece goal against four of them and racked up a total of five points through those goals — and while West Ham are a better defensive side against set pieces than any of Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton or Newcastle, it’s still a tactic Villa are likely to turn to again Sunday.

It’s 100 percent been the correct tactic, by the way, from two sides:

  1. Villa aren’t a good attacking team from open play in this setup; they don’t have a strong finisher up top and are playing their best player out of position to cover deficiencies on the wings.
  2. Villa’s personnel is perfectly aligned to be an elite set-piece team. Hourihane’s left foot is matched by few others in the division, Jack Grealish wins attacking free kicks at an absurd rate, and they play with good height at the back.

Defensive resoluteness and lethal set pieces kept Union Berlin up in the Bundesliga this year. Dean Smith’s tactical switches are trying to do the same for Villa. It just takes one great delivery to turn a match.

It’s a good time to be playing your best football of the year

In the nine matches since the restart, Stats Bomb’s xG data (accessed via FB Ref) has Villa as more or less a mid-table side — the Claret and Blues’ cumulative expected goal differential in this run is right around 0. It’s by far and away their best run of the year, and it’s a stark turnaround no matter how you want to look at it:

  • Villa’s xGD was approximately –11 over the last nine Premier League matches before the interruption
  • Villa hadn’t had a nine-match run with an xGD better than –5 since December (before the 4–1 thrashing by Leicester City)

And hell, that xG includes a single-match walloping at the hands of Manchester United. While I felt like Villa’s post-restart tactics were a well-overdue shift and had the club playing at a solid level, I had doubts over whether or not they could survive on the backs of strong defensive football via a small sample size theory. Well, they’re or two results away from doing it, and Dean Smith deserves a hell of a lot of credit for the switches he’s made.

He also deserves some credit for not moving away from the formula when Villa were playing better, but not getting the results. They were in with a chance to nick a draw off Chelsea, Wolves and Liverpool; had their chances for all three points against Sheffield United and Newcastle. The performances at the back are slightly better and have been more composed, but sometimes, there’s not much beyond this game other than how the ball bounces a few times.

Just ask Eddie Nketiah.

Let’s make survival scenarios easy

Villa are 90 minutes away from knowing their fate for the 2020–21 campaign — and they’re sitting in the driver’s seat in a bit of a shocking twist.

Let’s look at how this goes down, from a Villa perspective:

If Villa win at West Ham, Villa survive unless Watford win at Arsenal and better Villa’s result by at least two goals. If Villa win by one, Watford must win by at least three; if Villa win by two, Watford must win by at least four; etc. This is due to Villa’s far superior goals scored tally, which Watford could conceptually reverse with a high-scoring shootout, but it’s incredibly unlikely. The easiest thing Villa can do is win Sunday, and force Watford to thrash Arsenal.

If Villa draw at West Ham, Villa survive as long as Watford don’t win, as Villa win a tiebreaker on 35 points.

If Villa lose at West Ham, Villa can still survive; Bournemouth must not win at Everton (they finish ahead of Villa no matter what if the teams finish level on 34 points), and Watford must lose at Arsenal and not better Villa’s result by at least two goals.

But seriously, just win, baby. Don’t worry about how, don’t worry about by how many — get an early goal, put the pressure squarely on Watford, and force them to play an open, expansive game against Arsenal that leaves them vulnerable on the counter.

Do I trust Villa? I don’t know. I don’t think we should, and this is far from over. But damn if this isn’t a chance. A chance to write off all this season’s “what-ifs”, from Crystal Palace in August to double-injury hell at Burnley or that El Ghazi chance at Everton last week.

I want to be sitting here Monday writing about how Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa are the centre-back pairing that could give Villa years of Premier League stability; about how Douglas Luiz could be a star next year; about how the last 10 matches gave you the best glimpse of hope this club has offered in nearly a decade.

We’re 90 minutes from it.