We’ve delved deep into how likely Aston Villa are to avoid Fulham’s mistakes whilst needing to invest heavily in the squad, as well as looking into style of play and more.
Words by Guy Poxon | @GuyPoxon
Aston Villa have regained their Premier League status for the 2019/20 season – and in the weeks since confidently seeing off Derby in the playoff final, it’s been made clear that Villa will be trying to strengthen over the summer. However, amidst the aftermath of a loan-heavy business model, and with some key positions up for grabs, a few people have keenly reminded Villa fans that you can’t simply buy Premier League safety.
Moreover, as mantras go, that bares some truth. However, it is important to look at the facts surrounding Aston Villa’s specific situation, Fulham’s “Guide to getting relegated”, and a few success stories which Villa can look to for the right sort of guidance.
Let’s nose dive straight into Fulham’s big summer splash:
|Jean Michael Seri||CM||£27m||6.55|
|André Zambo Anguissa||CDM||£22m||6.69|
|Maxime Le Marchand||CB||£3.6m||6.72|
Fulham’s line up also included loanees and other transfers:
- Calum Chambers
- Sergio Rico
Players in Fulham’s best 11 from the 2018/19 season, who were at Fulham during their 2017/18 season:, included:
- Denis Odoi
- Tim Ream
- Ryan Sessegnon
- Tom Cairney
So, presumably, this is what people mean when they talking about “Doing a Fulham” – replacing most of your starting 11 and then trying to play in a league which is more difficult to succeed in. However, as with everything there is far more to Fulham’s failure, and more to other teams’ successes.
Let us look at the individual performances those signings had, from a distance.
Individual Quality and Changing Your Players
Sessegnon and Cairney underperformed in the Premier League. However, despite their hype following promotion, Sessegnon actually only got a 7.04 in the Championship and Cairney got a 7.33 rating during Fulham’s promotion season (Grealish 7.42, McGinn 7.28 and Abraham 7.32, for context).
Less surprising then, that Fulham’s two best players over the whole of their EFL season underperformed in the Premier League, because they weren’t outstanding in the Championship. Of course, we should mention Mitrovic, who came in later in 2018 and played very well, with a 7.52 rating and goals which were largely responsible for Fulham’s promotion. He went on to score a 7.03 rating in the Premier League and was deservedly marked as one of Fulham’s best performing players. However it’s worth noting that he only played 20 times in the EFL (twice as a sub for Fulham).
Out of all 12 signings that were mentioned who Fulham brought to the club, only one (Chambers) scored over a rating of 7.0 for the season (Mitrovic got 6.9 in all comps). This suggests that Fulham’s new players weren’t falling over themselves to put together a string of good performances in the Premier League. But what about their EFL players?
Four out of 11 of the players from the EFL team that got Fulham promoted were in their best Premier League 11 this year, the rest were new signings in key positions like midfield, striker, centre back, goalkeeper. This is quite a risky strategy, especially when many of the players haven’t played in England before, and they haven’t played with each other before, either.
Looking to Villa, we might estimate that (worst case) around six players from 2019’s Play-Off 11 would start, and our “best” case is around nine. My guess is that Smith will opt to have a critical mass of 7 of our current 11 playing, which is a big increase on Fulham’s 4, and they’re all pretty much along the spine of the team (Those in italics are unlikely):
- Jed Steer
- Tyrone Mings
- Kortney Hause OR Axel Tuanzebe
- Ahmed Elmohamady
- Conor Hourihane
- Jack Grealish
- John McGinn
- Anwar El Ghazi
- Tammy Abraham
So right off the bat, there are some differences between our (necessary) spending spree and Fulham’s, even if we need to spend anywhere from £25,000,000 to £50,000,000 on getting our loan players from last season through the door.
Over-performance and Under-performance
Players aside, the sum of the parts is very much a key variable in determining a team’s success.
In the 2017/18 season, Fulham were promoted after finishing 3rd in the EFL, however they over-performed based on their expected performance (expected goals, assists, goals conceded, possession and defence etc). Fulham’s expected position was actually 6th, compared with their real life position of 3rd. Aston Villa finished 5th in the league during 2017/18 but under-performed according to their expected league position of 4th.
However, Villa’s 5th place finish in the promotion winning season of 2018/19 was exactly equal their expected finish, meaning Villa were destined for the playoffs by fair trial. This data shows that Fulham vastly over-performed to get promoted in 2018, whereas Villa’s promotion season was “about right”. The moral of this story is that Villa will likely need to improve on the pitch to surpass Fulham’s performance. So Villa are having their hand forced somewhat and must dip into the transfer market in a reasonable way.
Aston Villa’s saving grace, here, is a structural change that occurred during the season which completely altered Villa as a side. Therefore, analysis of Villa’s position doesn’t hold much in the way of useful insight, if you just measure over the season as one uniform time period.
First, the change in manager happened 10 games into the season. This changes Villa’s system completely, and they improve while opting for an attacking style of play. Secondly, with only one recognised centre-back fighting fit(ish) at the club, Villa had to wait till January before Smith could fully implement the defensive side of his system by signing two more centre backs (who went on to start a number of games and both played the Play-Off Final). Let’s also remember that Villa suffered a couple of key injuries (Grealish and Tuanzebe).
These two structural changes are stark and, without having access to expected league position stats for the final half of the season, you would expect Villa’s change from a predominantly attacking outfit, to a defensive team with a capable midfield and attacking transition; to have an impact. In particular, this change in style would have an impact on their expected goals and goals conceded for the second half of the season, in comparison to the first half.
Comparing this structural change to Fulham, sufficed to say that Fulham’s good run in 2017/18 wasn’t really due to a structural change in the same way that Villa’s winning run, and promotion, was largely due to… well… having more than one CB at the club. This enabled Smith’s system to work because while we scored a similar number of goals per match, we were conceding far less. In fact, Villa’s style of play is to limit teams’ chances from open play. Fulham, on the other hand, played all-out attacking football in the EFL, using their bigger guns to over-power teams in the Championship. Two completely different approaches to winning football matches.
To back up this point – consider Villa’s games against West Brom. The first two, before our defence was implemented properly, saw Villa lose comfortably, and draw unluckily the second time around in the away fixture. However, in the playoff semis over another two legs, West Brom were incredibly lucky to take it to penalties against a much-improved Aston Villa side who created chances, and limited West Brom to only a couple of chances.
What Should Aston Villa’s Target for the Premier League Be?
What’s the EPL benchmark? Well, this changes every season of course. But you could break it down in certain ways. Firstly, there’s the task of “avoiding being rubbish”. Looking at Fulham and Huddersfield in 2018/19, they were rubbish because they conceded too many goals, and they didn’t score enough. Pretty obvious!
This is reflected by their expected positions being 20th and 19th respectively. Cardiff, were actually unlucky by some accounts because their expected finish was 16th and they should have swapped places with Brighton, who narrowly escaped relegation despite having an expected position of 18th.
Let’s look at different styles of play, how they’ve worked for PL sides and how Villa might fit into one of these styles.
Looking at teams who get relegated highlights something relatable and interesting – which is that teams who deserve to be relegated generally concede a lot of expected goals, obviously. But what’s less obvious, is that those teams who avoid relegation tend to be quite defensive and watertight. Think about teams like Burnley and Newcastle who have become organised teams in midfield and defence. They still concede a lot of goals because they lack quality, but they really do limit the number of opportunities which teams in similar league positions get to damage them, and this helps to sway tight fixtures their way.
Fulham and Huddersfield have never been known for their tight defences, even in the championship. It’s worth noting that Fulham’s defence in the championship was largely similar to their defence in the Premier League – quite open. This is likely a bi-product of playing expansive football, and not really investing enough in quality defenders for the Premier League. Perhaps we would have expected more from Alfie Mawson in Fulham’s defence, but as is the way with younger players to go off the boil during the season(s) immediately after their breakthrough season.
This bodes well for Villa, who are well organised in CB positions and in midfield. They tend to limit chances for the opponent to crosses and set pieces. However, attacking opponents getting in between the CB and fullback positions has been difficult for Villa to deal with – arguably an area for improvement and a bi-product of having less athletic fullbacks in the team.
Route Two – The Beautiful Game
This expansive style is where the line becomes very fine between success and failure. Some teams who play in an attacking manor finish higher up in the EPL and don’t get relegated as easily – for example, Bournemouth, Watford, and arguably West Ham. The margins are thin but effectively it comes down to making your attacking team as watertight as possible when you lose the ball, with a good midfield in transition, who can adapt their shape and defend quickly when you’re not actually attacking. Anecdotally this fine margin basically comes down to three things, comparing Bournemouth and Fulham:
- A better manager who can implement a better system which is well organised.
- Signings like Nathan Ake working out well, in contrast to the Alfie Mawson’s of this season, who didn’t work out well.
- Fraser, Wilson and King working out as a better partnership than Mitrovic, Sessegnon and Schurrle – who are all good players in their own right.
There’s a reason for comparing Bournemouth and Fulham, because stats aside; look at the quality difference between those defenders and attackers and the way those teams try to play – there actually isn’t much in it. I know Bournemouth’s players have performed better, but I would say that Bournemouth would probably like to have Mitrovic and Sessegnon in their squad as options, which is just to say that there’s talent in both sides.
This is fairly true across all positions in both sides, they have similar levels of quality. You’d expect them to play quite similarly, and I think it’s fair to say that everyone expected Fulham to go Bournemouth’s way and finish midtable, at the start of the 2018/19 season. In fact, Fulham looked to play a lot like Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth in the championship and they wanted to do the same in the Premier League. Now, the key thing to note here is that Bournemouth actually conceded a similar number of goals (70) to Fulham (81). The major difference is that they scored more – 56 for Bournemouth, only 34 for Fulham. That 30-goal-or-so net difference between goals for/against between the two sides is the difference between Bournemouth’s mid-table finish, not to mention their expected finish of 10th, and Fulham’s terrible season in ending in a deserved 19th place.
So, the key to playing an open game with a midtable-looking squad genuinely seems to depend on how good your manager’s system is at getting the best from your players. What drives the expected goals, and real goals, overall better performances and such a stark difference between seemingly even-looking teams?
Let’s look at the basic stuff, and some indicators of good play at a high level. Looking at defence, midfield and attack, all working as a unit:
- Bournemouth – higher number of tackles per player (spread across the team), less fouls, more key passes, more crosses and more through balls.
- Fulham – only seem to win here in terms of pass %. And as we know, possession is not a key driver of winning matches by itself.
And it’s the fact that these stats lean to Bournemouth’s favour which drive the goals, assists and key play which has made heroes of Fraser, Wilson, Ake, Gosling, Brooks and King – in addition to strong contributions from across the squad list. While Fulham’s system has only seen Babel, Chambers, Mitrovic and Seri make a particularly large impact on the game, with little input from anyone else.
How do you teach tackling, and creativity to make an expansive style work well? This is one for the coaches, but perhaps Howe’s success in contrast to Fulham’s system, is his ability to highlight and communicate effective possession traps to set up counter attacks, shapes for attacking phases, and coaching the basics like snuffing out danger, finishing and game-management.
To finish up some thoughts on this section and summarise, the difference between Fulham and Bournemouth isn’t really the squad’s quality – in fact Seri, Chambers and Babel were good for Fulham and were driving good fundamentals like key passes and tackles. However, across the entire squad Bournemouth’s players produced more tackles, key passes and had better discipline overall. Sufficed to say, the manager and the system can be a big factor in deciding league position. For Villa to follow the path of Bournemouth, would be a high risk strategy of outscoring your opponents using tactics – personally, I think Dean Smith could do anything, but there might be a better way of doing things than managing such a fine balance. If I was Dean, I’d be thinking about bringing in some top class defenders, regardless.
Route Three – Try To Attack, But Defend Properly
As a Villa fan, I must commend Wolves for such an excellent ascent to PL stability. However, to bust the myth that Wolves are a free-flowing, free-scoring English rose of modern football – consider that they scored less than Everton, Leicester, West Ham, Watford, Palace and Bournemouth. But, crucially, they were actually joint 5th in the league for the fewest goals conceded.
Not bad for a team with Neves and Moutinho anchoring midfield – it doesn’t exactly sound like a Burnley defensive master class, does it?
Their expected league position was actually 5th, which is two higher than where they finished in reality and would have put them above Arsenal.
How did they achieve it? Let’s compare Wolves to Bournemouth:
|Average total match goals|
|2.7 expected||2.4 actual|
|Average team goals scored|
|1.5 expected||1.2 actual|
|Average team goals conceded|
|1.2 expected||1.2 actual|
|Average total match goals|
|3.2 expected||3.3 actual|
|Average team goals scored|
|1.5 expected||1.5 actual|
|Average team goals conceded|
|1.6 expected||1.8 actual|
Wolves’ expected and actual goals scored are lower than Bournemouth’s. However, Bournemouth’s open style of play seems to come at the cost of an increased number of goals scored against them. And on balance, While Wolves score 100% more team goals than they concede, Bournemouth only score 83.3% more team goals than they concede. From this example, then, it appears that conceding less has higher marginal gains than scoring more, where a team is scoring a “reasonable” amount of goals. The tipping point is for Dean Smith to work out, but I’d imagine that if you’re Huddersfield and Cardiff, you probably need to focus more on scoring, but if you’re Fulham (even perhaps, Bournemouth) you need to focus more on defending.
We’ll look at the next graph in a second, but from the looks of things, I think it’s Villa’s defence which will win us more points, based on this theory.
|Average total match goals|
|2.7 expected||3.1 actual|
|Average team goals scored|
|1.5 expected||1.8 actual|
|Average team goals conceded|
|1.2 expected||1.3 actual|
Looking at Aston Villa’s vitals, is actually very encouraging. While goals for exceed expectations, critically, the expectation is similar to Wolves. And even more encouragingly, goals conceded is far lower than Bournemouth and the same as Wolves. Now this will be affected by playing in a different league, but then again, Smith has a preseason and the full Premier League season to work on the drivers of these stats (the system, of course) with the players. So I’d expect to see an improved Villa side to cope with the Premier League.
To Summarise (Or TL;DR)
Villa will, and should, look to invest heavily across the pitch. The likelihood of replicating Fulham’s situation and spending their way into relegation, looks unlikely to happen the same way it happened to Fulham.
This is because Villa’s system is more defensive and the nucleus of the team will, critically, be more stable than Fulham’s. But, looking to Villa’s best chance of success in the Premier League, they should capitalise on recent defensive robustness, and possibly ensure that they try to improve at the back, while trying to maximise their goal-scoring capability. This will be achieved by keeping the team’s core together, while ironing out weaknesses where possible. Defensively, suring up the fullback positions hasn’t been mentioned in this article, but I think this is key to build on the defensive traits of last season and preserving a low “average team goals conceded” while playing in a better league. Offensively, Villa already look strong going forward and on the wings (and will likely improve), but they will need a decent goal-scoring striker.
Assuming that Villa do indeed make wise transfer decisions, Smith’s set up of the team will be very important for driving those fundamentals, to stop the opposition while creating goals.