Is This Aston Villa Side For Real?

I'll admit it: I was wrong.

I picked Aston Villa as a surefire relegation candidate to begin the season.

The team was often in complete disarray on the pitch last season. It took a monumental effort from winger Jack Grealish and an improbable Hawk-Eye mishap for Villa to narrowly avoid relegation on the final matchday. 17th place was much better than they deserved.

But football isn't about what could or should have happened, and Aston Villa has demonstrated that this season.

Everton may be the unforeseen league leaders, but an undefeated Aston Villa in second is arguably even more of a shock.

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Now four matches represent just over 10 percent of the league campaign, but Villa has already surpassed more than one third of its point total from last season (by contrast it took the club 13 matches to reach 12 points in 2019-20). 

With a strong start to the season, Aston Villa has appeared to remove itself from the relegation conversation, but just how good is this side?

Much of Villa's success can be attributed to a few crafty signings that fill crucial holes in the squad.

Goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, purchased from Arsenal over the summer for $19 million, is continuing the fantastic run of form he displayed for the Gunners at the end of last season. The swift shot-stopper appears to be the solution for Villa's goalkeeping problem, a position that manager Dean Smith filled with four different players last year.

Martínez currently leads the league in Post-Shot Expected Goals Minus Goals Allowed, which is a fancy way of saying he has prevented 2.7 more goals than expected given the shots he has faced. Newcastle's Kevin Darlow is the only other keeper to have exceeded his expected goals total by more than a goal so far this year (1.1).

The Argentine has also been helped defensively by the center back pairing of Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa. The duo is now justifying the combined nearly $40 million paid for them before the start of last season.

The Englishmen were Villa's starting center halves in less than half of its Premier League matches last season but have been paired together for all four fixtures to begin this campaign, recording three shutouts in the process.

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New right back Matty Cash, signed from Nottingham Forest for $17 million in September, has also slotted in well in defense. That right fullback position was a problem position for Villa last year. Frenchman Frédéric Guilbert was serviceable in his first Premier League season, but he was benched late in the year for Konsa and often saw playing time taken away by veteran Dean Smith favorite Ahmed Elmohamady.

With a consistent back four, Aston Villa finally looks to have solved the defensive woes that plagued it last year (second most goals allowed in the league).

A solid defensive line has also allowed Villa's new attacking signings to flourish.

The additions of striker Ollie Watkins and attacking midfielder Ross Barkley have removed some of the playmaking responsibilities from Jack Grealish, who was exceedingly relied on to create attacking opportunities by himself last season. 

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Grealish continues to produce at the same level he was last year, as again he ranks in the top five in the Premier League in key passes/match and shot creating actions/match. But with more dangerous attackers around him, Villa has become a more lethal goal-scoring side.

Grealish averaged 0.42 goal creating actions/match (GCA/90) last season, a figure that has risen to 1.25 GCA/90 this year. 

New striker Watkins was dominant with Brentford last year, posting a 25-goal campaign and winning Championship Player of the Season. The Englishman has adjusted to Premier League life well, notching a hat trick against Liverpool in just his third start for Villa. 

Chelsea loanee Ross Barkley also provided a playmaking presence in the midfield, spraying passes to all areas of the pitch and expertly maintaining possession of the ball. 

Villa has also been helped by some timely finishing as well. The side has exceeded its expected goals (xG) scored total by 4.8 goals thus far, highest in the league, and averages the most goals per shot on target (.55). All three of Grealish's shots on target this season have found the back of the net, while Watkins and Barkley are both converting at a rate of 60 percent on their shots on target. 

Squad Shooting 2020-2021 Premier League Table
Stan Stan Stan Stan Stan Expe Expe
Squad Gls Sh SoT G/Sh G/SoT xG G-xG
Aston Villa 12 58 22 0.21 0.55 7.2 +4.8
Tottenham 15 74 35 0.19 0.40 10.8 +4.2
Everton 14 62 27 0.21 0.48 9.9 +4.1
Chelsea 13 64 26 0.16 0.38 9.0 +4.0
Leicester City 11 42 20 0.14 0.30 7.1 +3.9
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/20/2020.

With the best finishing and goalkeeping in the Premier League after four matches, it is no surprise that Villa has four wins from four matches.

But is this level of play sustainable?

If Villa had performed at an average level in both facets, the team would have scored 7.2 and conceded 4.7 goals through the first four matches, a respectable tally but not worthy of four straight wins. Instead, Villa has scored 12 and allowed just two goals.

While Aston Villa has a higher expected goals (xG) total than its opponent in all four matches, in two of these matches the Villa xG is just 0.1 goal higher than its expected goals against (xGA).

Villa defeated two weakened sides in its first two matches (Sheffield United was hindered by an early red card, while Fulham had Tim Ream play a full 90 minutes), but then thumped reigning champions Liverpool and labored to a victory on the road against a very good Leicester side. Even so, an early mistake from Adrian opened the door for Villa, while talisman Jamie Vardy was unavailable for Leicester.

Scores & Fixtures 2020-2021 Aston Villa: Premier League Table
Date Round Venue Result GF GA Opponent xG xGA Poss Formation Match Report
2020-09-21 Matchweek 2 Home W 1 0 Sheffield Utd 1.0 0.9 72 4-3-3 Match Report
2020-09-28 Matchweek 3 Away W 3 0 Fulham 1.6 0.7 36 4-3-3 Match Report
2020-10-04 Matchweek 4 Home W 7 2 Liverpool 3.9 1.8 31 4-2-3-1 Match Report
2020-10-18 Matchweek 5 Away W 1 0 Leicester City 0.7 0.6 50 4-2-3-1 Match Report
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/20/2020.

Expect Emiliano Martínez to continue performing well in goal, as he did with Arsenal after the restart, but maintaining such an unbeatable level of goalkeeping will be nearly impossible.

The signing of Ollie Watkins finally adds the clinical finisher Villa so sorely lacked last season, and he has formed a deadly attacking combo with Villa captain Jack Grealish. But Villa's pinpoint finishing to begin the campaign will also be very difficult to replicate as the season progresses. 

While Villa's extraordinary form is unlikely to continue, the squad's improved chemistry is here to stay. Manager Dean Smith spent much of last season tinkering with lineups and formations as he tried to organize a plethora of new signings into a coherent football team.

With a year under his belt and a few expert additions at key positions, Smith has been able to put out a consistent starting 11 to begin the season. This progress is most notable on the backline, where Villa has been among the best in the league, a far cry from last season's defensive nightmare.

Don't expect Aston Villa to finish the season in second place, but for a team that was picked as a relegation candidate to begin the year, a top half finish is very feasible, and a Europa League spot isn't out of the question.

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