How Bad Are Aston Villa?
Coming into this season I was somewhat bullish on Aston Villa. Okay that's not quite true but I thought they'd at least be semi-competent. Admittedly, some of this was colored by the fact that Villa bought four Ligue 1 players in the summer and I liked three and a half of them (the half being Jordan Ayew). I loved the Jordan Amavi signing and thought that he'd do good things at LB, Idrissa Gueye knows who he is as a CM and Veretout produced interesting playmaking numbers at a young age even though he mixed it up between playing CM and as a #10. I had my issues with Ayew because I thought he was inefficient when on the ball, but overall I thought Villa did well with their French recruitment.
Obviously our pal Tim Sherwood was still the manager but last season he had posted middling shot numbers, especially compared to the travesty on that front during Paul Lambert's reign. You knew it wouldn't last this well but at least it was something. And now you look at Aston Villa and it's just depressing. Any attempt from pundits and writers to explain away the season majors on slamming their transfer policy over the summer. How the owner has lost interest and let the ex Arsenal men running the club ruin a once proud English football institution (I don't believe this is true, but hey, narratives).
Villa are having one of the worst seasons in the history of the Premier League. They're on pace to tie 2005-06 Sunderland for the 2nd worst season tally in PL history at 15. Make no mistake, Aston Villa are pretty damn bad and their overall projections this season have them as the most likely relegated team in the PL by a huge margin. They've been much worse than I expected and the wheels have fallen off big time for the club.
However looking at a rough projection of talent level through shot metrics and it gives a bad picture but not quite as bad as you might think given their lack of points. Using shots on target, Aston Villa would rank 18th, using Paul Riley's xG, 17th. Both project Villa with an expected point total of around 19-20 instead of their current eight. So it's gotten me to wonder just why Aston Villa are 11-12 points off those projected talent levels. What the hell has gotten them to such a state that there's almost certainly no way to survive?
Just on a peripheral level, Aston Villa have been unlucky. Their PDO of 87.2 is the second worst in the PL and if that mark holds, it'd be the 6th lowest mark in the Opta era. But then you peel back the onion a bit more and you can see why some of this is happening. Brad Guzan since coming to the PL has always posted bad SV%'s and Aston Villa as a team haven't had a SV% that's come close to hitting 70% since his arrival. When adding shot location context, it gets even worse. Paul Riley has done extensive work on goalkeepers using his xG model and video analysis and Guzan as a shot stopper has been one of the worst goalies in the PL.
There are still many things we don't know about goalies, but the mounting evidence does suggest that Brad Guzan has sucked as a shot stopper since coming to the PL. Add to that other factors such as claiming balls and distribution patterns, stuff that Sam Jackson talks a lot about and the growing picture makes it more clear that Brad Guzan is or has become a below par goalie that Aston Villa have retained for multiple years. One other hilarious thing about Brad Guzan and Aston Villa this season: Aston Villa when leading in a game have a save percentage of 37.5%. 37.5%! I can't even comprehend having such a terrible SV% like that when in a winning position. Given this fact it also won't shock you that they have had the least time in a winning position in the PL this season.
When you have a bad goalkeeper, you better have a defense that's bloody good at shot suppression both in quality and quantity to limit as much damage as possible, and Aston Villa do not qualify for either. They suck at shot suppression (any benefit from being 11th in shots allowed is destroyed by being tied for 18th in shots on target allowed) and suppressing quality of shots, (15th in xG against).
Watching Aston Villa defend half the time is like watching a drunk circus act, you know it's going to end up in misery and you're just counting down the clock. Their defense can be spread so open whether it be in transition or in a set position, it's looks like a modern day re-enactment of Moses parting the Red Seas.
There's a very strong argument to be had that Aston Villa employ the worst fullback combination in the PL between Alan Hutton and Kieran Richardson. The downgrade from Jordan Amavi to Richardson was massive and Alan Hutton this season might be the worst RB I've ever seen. He regularly does moronic stuff defensively and his crossing abilities aren't anywhere good enough to cover up for stuff like this.
You think we're just cherry picking? Oh we're just getting started. He somehow allowed all of 5'4 Nathan Dyer to dart in behind him for the game winning goal versus Leicester.
He gave up this doozy of a penalty to Theo Walcott after being burned by him on the flanks.
He failed to help at all with Daniel Sturridge's run for his goal that basically ended it for Villa that day.
There's a bunch more examples I could've used but you get the deal. It's no surprise that both Hutton and Richardson are sub-par PL players. Both are over 31 and play a young man's position, especially so in a faster tempo league. The injury to Jordan Amavi robbed Villa of a potential starlet at LB. The other options that Villa have at fullback are uninspiring, especially on the right side and it leaves the club with the following options:
- Buy a RB in the January Transfer Window
- Move Micah Richards into the RB slot and pray that works
- Do nothing and keep banging your head against the wall with the Hutton/Bacuna RB core
If Aston Villa were 3-4 points back of 17th, I could see option 1 being reasonable. As it stands, Aston Villa have next to no chance of surviving so wasting money in January seems kind of pointless unless it's a player with massive upside. Making Micah Richards a RB again might be the lesser of evils, but if his time at Fiorentina last season was any indication, Richards as a RB would also probably end in a disaster. At least playing Richards at RB would allow them to play the better CB tandem of Okore and Lescott (Something the folks at 7500 To Holte talked about).
It's hard to see how Aston Villa can go about fixing their defensive problems. Small things like playing Okore/Lescott at CB could help trim numbers a little bit but nothing extraordinary. Aly Cissokho over Richardson is an upgrade but nothing compared to having Jordan Amavi there. Maybe playing a double pivot consisting two of Westwood/Gueye/Sanchez could help a tiny bit which would mean making Jordan Veretout the full time #10. Again though, I'm skeptical after this much evidence that tweaks like that would help curtail things in front of Guzan. Their personnel looks primed to concede loads of shots unless a brutally defensive manager like Tony Pulis was hired and entirely sacrificed offense for defense.
It isn't any better if you look at Villa's offensive output this season. Aston Villa rank 18th in shots for, tied for 18th in shots on target for and 20th in expected goals for. They aren't even getting in the box: Aston Villa have 48.1% of their shots come from outside the penalty area and only Norwich have a higher % at 48.7. If you want to see a good attack versus a team like Aston Villa, here you go.
As funny as it sounds, Aston Villa might even be over-performing in their outside the box shots. Using Danny Page's excellent Expected Goal Simulator, I used Aston Villa's xG numbers from outside the penalty area and ran a simulation on the likelihood of scoring 5 goals from those situations.
It's nothing extreme but the description of this simulation said that they expected Villa to score four goals and 55% of those simulations had a sign of over performance. Given Villa's situation both offensively and overall, even a slight hint of over performance is a bad sign.
It goes without saying but losing Christian Benteke in the summer was a massive loss. He's had his glaring flaws in Liverpool's scheme but he was a great focal point for a club like Aston Villa. Though Tactics Tim did post average shot differential numbers when he took over, he also presided over Benteke's return to form and among other things rode that to survival . Looking at Aston Villa's roster and you can see why they've struggled massively without him. It's just a poorly assembled mishmash. I would broadly classify Aston Villa's attacking players in these categories:
- Talented Dribblers who do nothing else: Jack Grealish, Adama Traore
- Runners who also do very little elsewhere: Scott Sinclair, Gabriel Agbonlahor
- Decent attacking midfielders not getting a long enough leash in their favorite position: Carles Gil, Jordan Veretout
- Flawed Strikers: Rudy Gustede, Jordan Ayew
There's very little penetration when Villa are settled in the opponent's final third and, surprise, these moments are few and far between. They rank in the bottom third in shots coming from established possessions in the opposition half. There doesn't seem to be much of an identity, with faint moments of counter attacking football spliced in with a lack of coordination in terms of supporting the striker in the final third.
There's two different game plans for Villa, depending on who is starting up front. If it's Rudy Gustede, the plan is more or less just pumping crosses at a high volume and hoping enough of them reach the target. When Ayew is up top, Villa still pump crosses but he also likes to have the ball to his feet. Sadly, Ayew has always ranked very high in dispossession and unsuccessful dribble numbers during his time in France, and it was a main reason why I was fairly skeptical of his signing. Though those numbers are slightly down, he's more or less been the same player he's always been; a high usage striker whose goal scoring record isn't good enough to justify such a stranglehold on a team's attack.
Aston Villa probably shouldn't be 11 points behind Swansea for 17th place, and as bad as Brad Guzan is, he shouldn't have a SV% in winning situations that's actually lower than Everton and Leicester's overall Scoring %. But I would make a strong argument that they are the worst team in the PL and the 19-20 point talent levels projected by xG and SoT to some extent flatters them. It's a very flawed roster with probably the worst defensive backbone in the PL and an attacking system nowhere near good enough to make up for it.
When Aston Villa are relegated this season, the mainstream UK writers will predictably blame the foreign recruitment (AKA the French players), a lack of players with league experience, Chief Executive Tom Fox and Sporting director Hendrik Almstadt, and possibly even Remi Garde as well. Screams of "well if you hired someone like Sam Allardyce, Aston Villa wouldn't be in this spot" will be heard. It ignores the fact that Sunderland are still awful under Allardyce and Garde did good things at Lyon when they were at their worst financially, a situation that in its own way was just as hard as what he's encountering with Aston Villa.
What I don't see is anyone talking about, or at least not as combined weight of evidence that has significantly contributed to the situation; is Brad Guzan being terrible for years, or Alan Hutton also being terrible, or Micah Richards' career winding down at age 27, or even Jack Grealish being another overhyped UK product. If there's anything to be blamed, it's the "proven PL experience" players that sorely lack in quality. The constant squad turnover has helped foster this situation and it's left the French players among others to be the scapegoat for the deterioration of Aston Villa. The foreign recruitment wasn't perfect, and the Adama Traore contract situation is probably the best example of that but the known quantities of the experienced PL players have not been good enough; I would much rather have bet on recruitment, brought the foreign players in and had faith in them.
Aston Villa are in a state of hurt as a club and there's no easy way out. It's been the perfect storm of bad quality and a pinch of unluckiness. It is very fair to say the lack of cohesion within the club over the years has led to their downfall. This is the type of situation that could result in them languishing in the Championship for years to come, similar to Fulham. Will the young talent they have stay in a lesser league or get cherry-picked the moment they go down? Either way, it looks to be a sad way for this novel to end, one of the Premier League's original members will be no more and it's tough to see any alternative endings being written for Aston Villa.