By Calum Slater
Dean Smith and his players celebrated the New Year with the side sitting comfortably in the top six, with 26 points, a game in hand or two over those above them and with a real chance at European football next season. A close defeat at Old Trafford and Covid-19 outbreak at Bodymoor Heath may have soured the mood since, but there is still plenty to be happy about considering that the last time that we were in a better position at this stage was in the 2008/09 season.
The emotions of fans for most of the years since that time have been more like a bungee jump than a rollercoaster, in that they severely plummeted for a very long time and are now starting to rapidly rise.
The way in which football has been discussed across those 12 years has evolved; a striker on a poor run of form would be criticised by fans who cited the key chances wasted in addition to the fact that he couldn’t hit a barn door with a shovel. Now, it’s indicators such as expected goals and goal contribution percentages that are used to make such a point. Such a wealth of statistics does make for easy reading when they are positive however, and this is very much the case after the blistering start to the season that we’ve had.
One glance at the table says a lot about the progress made in the space of a short few months: 15 played, 29 goals scored, 16 goals conceded (the third fewest behind Manchester City and Spurs). There’s been some very impressive results along the way too – whether they be complete performances like those against Liverpool and Arsenal, or late smash and grabs against Wolves and Leicester City.
Whilst occasionally looking suspect during a period of the season, the Aston Villa defense has largely been very strong. This has especially been the case across the last few fixtures, with Olivier Giroud’s header at Stamford Bridge being the first goal conceded in over seven hours of football.
Individual statistics also show the good work put in by various players across the Villa back line. In terms of the most tackles made, Matty Cash leads the way for Villa with 37; he also excels at reading the game, with 36 interceptions, third in the league behind World Cup winning ball-of-energy N’Golo Kanté and the less celebrated Josh Brownhill. Despite his threat going forward with the ball, it is his defensive work that has been particularly impressive.
Villa’s goalkeeper has been most excellent and there are many stats to support this – Emi Martínez leads all other goalkeepers in the league for Clean Sheets with eight, in addition to being the league leader for ‘High Claims’ with 19.
The number of saves made is an unreliable statistic as some goalkeepers are far busier than others. A better metric to use is perhaps the Post-Shot Expected Goals figure (how many a ‘keeper is likely to concede given the quality of shots faced from the chances created). That figure is currently 20.4 – the actual total that Villa have let in is only 16. When averaging this across all games played, no other goalkeeper has performed better at conceding fewer than expected.
Expected Goals Against is a good way to explain how well a defense has performed overall, as it effectively shows the quality of chances that the opposition have been allowed to create, regardless of the finish. As a reflection of the dramatic change in form that can be traced back to Project Restart, Villa have the second lowest figure for this stat behind Manchester City, with an xGA of 17.6.
A significantly higher Post-Shot Expected Goal tally compared to simply Expected Goals suggest that at times we’ve conceded to a stroke of genius, an effort that very few keepers could be expected to keep out. The Southampton game is the prime example with three fantastic efforts against us finding the net. When used to define a goalkeeper, ‘expected’ stats are particularly useful as they narrow down the direct impact that one player has and give an idea of what would have been if he were ‘average’ – these stats only add weight to the recognition we all know Martínez deserves.
On the negative side of defensive stats, the player with the most fouls in a Villa shirt is surprisingly Jack Grealish; he is also, obviously, the most fouled in the league, being taken down 73 times (27 times more than Wilfred Zaha in 2nd place).
Villa’s top scorer is currently Ollie Watkins with six goals. More goals from the main striker would be desirable, but with Grealish and the resurrected Anwar El Ghazi on five, the team are not struggling for goals overall. Additionally, the role Watkins has in the side does not lend itself to being the runaway top scorer, often pulling defenders wide to make space for others rather than being the poacher that finishes off every move.
He’s certainly been involved in link-up play to a much greater extent than most strikers at other clubs (hence the 58 aerial battles won). Over reliance on one player can be dangerous and so the ability to continue to score goals through injury and formation tweaks is very positive – in terms of assisting them, Grealish leads the charge for Villa with eight, with McGinn setting up four and Traoré three.
Creating chances is key to playing enjoyable, attractive football, and is an area in which Villa have experienced somewhat of a resurgence this season. There are no prizes for guessing who our number one man is given the assists statistic – Grealish has made the most key passes in the league (55) and has created 12 ‘big chances’, second to only Kevin De Bruyne.
Second highest on the list for us is Trézéguet which, given the number of games he has been absent for, is impressive and promises an even more lethal attack when he returns.
The 238 shots taken average at 15.87 per game, the highest in the league – whilst the Burnley game felt as if it was responsible for at least 230 of them, the clinical edge found in the subsequent matches has shown that a trigger-happy strategy can pay dividends.
The side have scored the 6th most goals in the league at this stage with 29, a statistic that is more than slightly helped by the seven put past the champions at Villa Park.
The ability of the team to come back from a losing position is a slight concern, with only one point gained from the six games in which we’ve gone behind. The recent performance at Chelsea from which this point was taken would suggest that the team is becoming more resilient, with John McGinn only centimetres from smashing that one point into three.
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Villa have used the fewest players (19), made the fewest substitutions and have made the fewest changes to the starting line-up in the league this season. Many of these changes have been forced due to injury/ suspension and so it would appear that Smith certainly isn’t a tinkerman, with trust and confidence in his team and methods.
Such consistency is both a positive and a negative for the side – on the one hand, our starting XI is strong and we’ve often found a winning formula with a style of play that certainly isn’t broken, so why fix it?
On the other hand, many of the available backup players so far are clearly not at the standard required to be a good rotation option in his eyes, particularly in the double-pivot midfield and at centre forward. If the Covid-19 outbreak in the squad has infected many of the first team players, isolation periods and potential long term effects could be problematic and expose the lack of strength in depth.
There are no stats that will come as a particular surprise, although this is a greater indication of how the expectations of the fanbase has changed over a few months.