Breaking Aston Villa’s 11th Place Limbo
At the turn of the year, Opta stats proposed that 11th was the most likely Premier League position Aston Villa were going to finish the season in. Not much as changed since. Villa have remained in 11th for the past two months and even the legendary and mysterious ‘Super Computer’ has predicted an 11th placed finish for Villa.
Despite Villa’s early season failings under Steven Gerrard, when Unai Emery took over at Villa, the club were only three points off 11th place sitting in 16th. Their form since the Spaniard took over on November 1st is the seventh best in the league – better than the likes of Chelsea, Newcastle and Spurs – so it’s a little odd, they’ve never risen above 11th.
Broadly speaking, Villa got somewhat stuck in 11th, due to the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea dropping from the upper echelons in the league to pad out the lower reaches of the top half of the table. Meanwhile, Brighton, Brentford and Fulham have largely matched Villa’s form under Emery, and have surprisingly been mainstays in the Premier League’s top half.
Villa’s real opportunity to step into the top half coincided with a three-game losing streak in February, which included a double date against the Premier League’s top two.
In terms of the final third of the season, what can Villa achieve by the season’s end?
Tough Task Ahead
Currently the European places are potentially unrealistic for Villa, as you’d expect the improving Liverpool and Chelsea to finish above them, while surely Newcastle have finished having their blip for the season. Beyond the gap between the Manchester teams in second and third (11 points), no gap between two teams is larger than the eight points that separate Villa from Crystal Palace immediately underneath them – a sizeable No Man’s land, before you even get to the trenches of a relegation battle.
So, at this moment in time, it leaves a top-half finish as Villa’s simple and pragmatic goal for the season. After their poor start, most Villa supporters would settle for it. After all, it would be the club’s first top-half finish in over a decade.
It’s not going to be easy though.
Before last night’s fixtures, when Villa’s run-in was analysed, based on their opponents’ points per game (PPG) average of 1.45, only Forest (1.57) and Newcastle (1.50) have a harder climax to their seasons.
With both Brentford and Brighton winning on Wednesday night, they now both are at least six points above Villa. Brighton with a seven-point cushion, also have a game-in-hand.
So, Villa are still playing catch-up, but what are their prospects of hunting down the trio of Brentford, Brighton and Fulham?
Positive Factors for the Season Run-in
The initial good news is Villa have a real chance to build on their current three game unbeaten run and get some real momentum going. In terms of their next four games, only Fulham (0.84) have a lower PPG than Villa’s opponents’ 0.94. So, if it’s going to happen, they need to bag some wins in those games to set up what is a difficult final couple of months.
These four games include: Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest at home, with visits to Chelsea and Leicester City. While the three teams below Villa maybe lacking in PPG, they all will be fired-up and focused, with this season’s relegation battle soon entering its business end.
Despite this, these are all teams, including Chelsea, that Villa will fancy their chances against. Certainly, if they remained unbeaten in this period, with at least a couple of wins, that would be a healthy starting point.
It’s worth mentioning that Villa only have to pick off one of the trio of teams highlighted above, to secure a top half berth. Fulham, who ultimately put Steven Gerrard out of his misery with a 3-0 win over Villa at Craven Cottage, have played a game more than Villa. If Villa win that game in hand, then they are only one point behind them.
Fulham still have to visit Villa Park, as do Brighton. In fact, Villa have the prospect of going head-to-head with all three teams, with a late April visit to Brentford in the offering too. Certainly Villa’s fortune in these three games will go along way in determining where they finish this season.
Mentally, Villa’s players must also stay off the beach, until the season’s end. Which is easier said, than done.
It’s important for the narrative of the club, in terms of both attracting better players in the summer and providing a sense of tangible progress under Emery.
While Villa may currently seem stuck in mid-table, the goal of breaking out into the top half, at least keeps the season intriguing.