‘At no point has Steve Bruce had Villa playing like a cohesive team’
“Christmas is a defining moment,” said Steve Bruce, at the start of December, after a 1-1 draw at Elland Road.
“You go into the New Year thinking where are we, what have we got to do?” Added the Villa boss.
After a winless five game run so far in what Aston Villa owner Tony Xia has called a ‘disaster month’, Villa have dropped out of the play-off places.
Go back four weeks, and the month of December with games against a series of teams with their own promotion ambitions, was billed as the period Villa supporters would find out whether their team were genuine automatic promotion candidates or play-off hopefuls at best.
As the Villa boss has repeatedly stated, the winter is a key time for solidifying promotion challenges.
What MOMS didn’t expect was Villa to slip out of the top six altogether.
Going into December, Villa were fourth, two points off second place Cardiff and six points clear of the team in seventh. Now they find themselves in ninth, three points off the play-offs and nine points off automatic promotion.
Villa’s problem isn’t exclusive to the month of December though.
At no point has Steve Bruce had Villa playing like a cohesive team since he’s been here. A team that looks to dominate proceedings with the players it has. Instead, they have tended to have won games through individuals turning it on in games.
Several Villa players have been bought in recent transfer windows individually as the best in the division with seemingly little foresight into how they’d fit in.
Ross McCormack & Scott Hogan both needed to play in a certain system of play. Have you seen any evidence of a system?
Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury were known at their previous clubs for leading their clubs’ attacking charge from midfield, at Villa they often play in more withdrawn roles with varying success.
Birkir Bjarnason? What was the thinking in terms of where he’d play? Because currently he’s a questionable buy.
Much has been made of Villa’s injuries being an excuse for their December drop in form, but when you look outside the Villa bubble, injuries have happened to most clubs.
The two main injuries have been John Terry and Jonathan Kodjia, but Villa should have a strong enough squad to cope.
While Terry has been impressive for Villa, the team still won their first three games after the 37-year-old was sidelined. In terms of Jonathan Kodjia, the Ivorian was a bit-player in Villa’s best XI this season, as they looked more of a team without him.
Kodjia’s single-mindedness worked because he was suited to the team’s primitive approach last season of trying to be tight at the back and hoping to snatch something at the other end. That approach ultimately wasn’t even good enough for a top half finish and Villa have made noticeably more progress this season without him, although he’s always a good option.
It’s also hard to have sympathy for Villa, after they let Kodjia go off on international duty when he hadn’t been fit to play for his club for weeks. If you’re serious about promotion, it’s worth playing bad cop with the player and playing hardball with the international manager.
In recent weeks the likes of Jack Grealish, Scott Hogan and Mile Jedinak have returned to fitness, thus giving Villa a fuller squad to choose from.
MOMS doesn’t buy the injury excuse. If you want to look at why results have been below expectations, just look at some of the individual errors in games that have gifted goals and the lack of idea and dimension going forward.
Villa have also often come unstuck against proper committed team performances.
If you want evidence of Villa’s limitations, see the four performances against an ever-changing Brentford team over the last two seasons. They’ve outplayed us every time and we’ve failed to beat them in four attempts.
Last season, despite Villa signing their supposed best player Scott Hogan before the game, Brentford beat Villa 3-0. That Villa team had both Jonathan Kodjia in it and Nathan Baker, the player some fans still cry about losing, yet we were outclassed.
One thing that is increasingly apparent is it doesn’t matter too much about the names on the Villa team sheet, but the way they play on the pitch.
The club’s talk about creating a ‘Villa way’ or ‘Villa engine’ have been empty words so far, as the only thing visible is short-termism with loans and old heads.
The purchase of James Bree for example, looked like a step in the direction of buying a talented young player that would go on to develop into a core player in the future, but zero faith has been put in him so far.
As a result, Villa will be in need of a huge overhaul next season whether they’re promoted or not.
It’s fine if the experienced players that Bruce have drafted in, do their job, but when players like Whelan and Jedinak are repeatedly making school boy errors, then they are only contributing to the stagnation of the club.
Their remit (and why they are paid handsomely at Premier League rates) is to help get the club promoted, as they won’t have much of a shelf life after that. If they fail though, you might as well had blooded younger players who will grow to play a part in Villa’s future.
“That’s the Championship”
Bruce seems keen to remind us how difficult the Championship is. His catchphrase “that’s the Championship” is something MOMS was hoping would be consigned to the dustbin of 2017.
If the Championship is so difficult then explain this…
Last season Neil Warnock took over a hapless Cardiff team in the same week as Bruce took over the Villa job. They were below Villa in the table, but fast-forward to this season and the Bluebirds are now a legitimate candidate for automatic promotion without spending hardly any money.
Warnock has out-performed Bruce with ease and at the fraction of the cost.
Likewise, look at Bristol City, the Robins finished 17th last season in the Championship and after buying one of our ‘rejects’ in Nathan Baker are currently in second place and also have reached a League Cup semi-final after knocking Manchester United out.
Both these teams have started in worse positions than Villa have under Bruce and without any big spending or getting ‘known’ players in. Wolves too also finished 15th last season and look at how they’ve turned things around.
In the context of this, the Championship isn’t that hard if you sort yourself out. Huddersfield last season is another example of this, a team tipped for relegation at the start of the season.
The Villa boss stated after the Brentford loss that Villa were only a ‘week away from a crisis’ alluding to the expectations of supporters. Apart from the Villa Twitteratti at the start of the season, Villa fans have been largely been supportive and understanding, despite being frustrated at what they have been paying to watch.
This is now not about having a bad week. The month of December has proved that there has been no progress on the pitch.
We are treading water and that is in danger of turning into quicksand very quickly.