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xV: Villa need to take their survival push into their own hands against Manchester United

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Villa’s performances have genuinely been much improved since the restart, but the final execution has been lacking. Dean Smith may need to throw the tactics back to the start of the season to get out of the bottom three.

Manchester United v Aston Villa - Premier League
Jack Grealish of Aston Villa celebrates after he scores his side’s first goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford on December 01, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column about the numbers behind Villa’s results! The math is getting grim for Villa — four points adrift with just five to play — which makes Thursday’s visit from Manchester United key for Dean Smith’s men.

Squaring Villa’s improved performances with the task in front of them

I said this below during the Liverpool match Saturday, and stand behind it:

Since the restart, Villa have been baseline competent; they’re doing a good job of limiting the opponent’s chances, and have more or less put themselves in a position to get the intended result each time out. Hell, they just went to Anfield and out-shot Liverpool 9–6. But this is Villa. They’ve won two points from those five matches, both from the outings where the tactics targeted a win.

Over the long run, a solid approach should net you the requisite number of points for survival. Unfortunately for Villa, this isn’t a “long run”, and their execution has been severely lacking. They couldn’t make their domination count against Sheffield United, and couldn’t make their late pressure work at Newcastle United. They’ve had some key individual errors at the back, probably most notably in the goal conceded to the Magpies.

It’s the hallmark of a bad team, and it’s all part of what makes Thursday the trickiest of the remaining five matches for Dean Smith — not just because Manchester United are playing good football and look like scoring at will against bad teams, but also because of where we are in the season. Thursday is not a “must-win” for Villa’s survival chances, even though it feels like it should be, and I think each of these two perspectives is completely valid:

  1. With better opportunities for three points coming, a draw that moves Villa to three points back of Watford would be a good result. Villa can achieve this with improved execution.
  2. Villa need wins and don’t have time to wait for better opportunities; they should go for broke, irrespective of opponent.

Personally? While it’s hard to throw away a tactical plan and mindset that’s given you better performances than you were getting before, I say go for it five more times until the end of the year. Put this survival push on the shoulders of your best attacking players — Jack Grealish and John McGinn — and play the more open, expansive football you did early in the season.

You’re gonna have to win at some point. Might as well give your stars a chance to shine.

Let’s talk about subs, baby

One of the biggest complaints I see leveled against Dean Smith each week is that he doesn’t make subs early enough — his opponent makes a switch, gains a foothold in the match, and scores a goal. We saw that happen Sunday at Anfield, where in the 13 minutes between Jürgen Klopp’s triple substitution on 61 minutes and Dean Smith’s double change on 74, Liverpool out-passed Villa 112–30, had 79 more touches and, of course, scored their first goal.

It is, of course, true that Liverpool were strongest in the minutes that immediately followed their change. But how much of that is because Klopp won a managerial battle with Smith by changing first, and how much of it is simply rooted in personnel disparities? Klopp brought on Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum on 61 minutes. Smith entered Jota and Mbwana Samatta.

There is necessarily a balance between the need for talent and the need for fresh legs on the pitch, and it seems like Smith prefers the former more often than not — and I can’t blame him. Does it really matter how fresh your subs’ legs are if they simply aren’t very good? Your best attacking option off the bench is a £8.5 million striker who can’t keep his place in the XI ahead of an academy graduate that doesn’t score.

On personnel alone, Villa are at a competitive disadvantage nearly every time substitution is made, so to default to “keep what I think is my best XI on the pitch for as long as possible”, particularly when you’ve successfully limited Liverpool to two shots in 70 minutes of football, is hardly something I get too worked up about. There’s no good choice here, and that’s before we get into the competitive disadvantage associated with the five subs rule, which I abhor. It’s a huge edge for bigger clubs with deeper squads; we saw that play out Sunday, and I’m sure we’ll continue to see it play out as the year goes on. Villa struggle enough to put 14 solid players on the pitch each week — now their opponents get to run 16.