Last week must’ve been the best four days ever for Aston Villa and their fans. Sure, they won the 1982 European Cup, but who can remember that far back?
Before kick-off at Villa Park last Wednesday night, Unai Emery’s side were fourth in the league, seven points off the top and only two ahead of fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur. Monumental wins over Manchester City and Arsenal have since moved them to within two points of the summit and with a five-point cushion over the teams chasing the top four.
Paddy Power doesn’t believe Villa can win the title, with them currently 16/1 fourth favourites in the Outright Winner market. The Villans are 5/1 for a top two spot but 8/11 for the top four, with Newcastle next in line in that market at 11/5.
Villa are expected to finish in the Champions League places and who would’ve thought that at the start of the season? Not Paddy, who had them as 5/1 shots for the top four at the start of August. But what’s a realistic aim for Emery’s boys? Let’s consider a few facts and stats.
After Villa had beaten Arsenal last Saturday, OptaJoe posted that this is the fifth time the club has had at least 35 points after 16 matches. Three of the past four occasions saw them win the league, the other time they finished runners up.
But the most recent example was in 1980/81, and the game’s changed. We need to check Premier League history.
Since the top flight went down to 20 clubs, there have been six instances of a team having exactly 35 points at this stage of a season. The Leicester side of 2015/16 is the obvious inspiration, as they won the league, though three others with 35 after 16 games finished second, one was third and another fourth. Villa would surely be delighted with any of these outcomes.
But there is also concern. The six teams in question were all either first or second in the table, not third like Villa are, and only one – Manchester United six years ago – was in the ‘Pep Guardiola at City’ era. With the defending champions likely to roar back and both Liverpool and Arsenal doing well, competition at the top looks fiercer than it was for Villa’s 35-point predecessors.
Villa have won every single home league game so far this season, having finished 2022/23 with a seven-match winning streak at Villa Park.
The good news in terms of their hopes for the future is that they’ve mostly deserved their victories. Believe it or not, Brighton edged the expected goal totals by 0.1 when losing 6-1 at Villa, and Arsenal contrived to waste four big chances last weekend, but Villa Park is largely a fortress.
Form on the road remains the big question mark. Emery’s side were fortunate to take seven points from Chelsea, Tottenham and Bournemouth, at least on the balance of chances, though they probably should have won at Nottingham Forest.
Add it all together and you find Villa are seventh in the expected points table, with the extra eight points they’ve collected being the joint-biggest overperformance this season. It doesn’t mean they’ll fall away but it wouldn’t be surprising if a few tight margins went against them soon.
Optimistic Villa supporters will want to acquaint themselves with the concept of relative performance. It multiplies a team’s points-per-game average by the corresponding figure for the clubs it has faced, home or away as appropriate. In other words, it compares teams while taking account of their fixture difficulty.
The good news for Emery is that Villa currently have the best figure in the Premier League, 3.31, with Liverpool (3.10), Arsenal (2.84) and City (2.76) next in line. This indirectly also means they have the easiest run-in, with their remaining opponents having averaged 1.28 points-per-game.
A closer look at their fixtures emphasises the point. Seven of the clubs starting match week 17 in the bottom half still have to visit Villa Park. You’d fancy the home side to win most of those matches.
The Emery factor
The Steven Gerrard era was not a successful one for Villa. He was in charge for effectively a season (across two campaigns), steering his charges to just 12 wins and 44 points from his 38 league matches. This probably explains why the former Liverpool skipper is now managing a mid-table outfit in Saudi Arabia.
The contrast with the Villans’ record under Emery could not be more obvious, with the Spaniard almost doubling his predecessor’s points-per-game average.
Since the weekend he was appointed, City lead the standings with 93 points from 42 games. Arsenal have 89, Liverpool one fewer and then Villa on 84, with a game in hand (last season was weird).
As with the data for 2023/24 alone, the xG for the Emery era show Villa have been fortunate to amass so many points. But if you want to beat your data fate, having a top goalkeeper – Emi Martinez is joint-second in the division for goals prevented – and a forward or two in form can carry a team a long way.
To the title? Almost certainly not. Leicester managed it because several of the established big boys had very poor seasons, whereas Villa are battling against three of the top five teams in the world (at least according to Opta’s rankings). They are a very creditable 10th place themselves but that doesn’t make the task any easier.
But a top four berth looks very feasible. It normally takes just over 70 points to secure fourth and Villa look capable of picking up 50 or more at home alone (happy Christmas!).
With a points-per-game average which sees them set to take 26 on the road, we could very easily be hearing the Champions League theme at Villa Park next season.
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