Long Read: Aston Villa’s Direction and Who Could Replace Steve Bruce

Put the kettle on, this is a long Villa read...

‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doing…’

“The social media dinosaur thing will be coming out and ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ but, look, I have been out of this league four times,”Steve Bruce protested as his Aston Villa side collapsed to a 4-1 defeat away at Sheffield United.

It was unclear who Bruce was most trying to convince with these words, his critics or himself.

Bruce’s decision to echo Jose Mourinho’s recent boasts regarding their previous achievements has helped, not hindered, the perception that he is yesterday’s man.

In the summer, Bruce made the rather astonishing claim that he was ‘starting again’ as Aston Villa manager and he appeared to want to distance himself from his previous project which centred around a collection of older players with experience of winning promotions and titles.  In January 2018, when Aston Villa seemed to have turned a corner in terms of performances, Bruce had praised his own recruitment of experienced players such as Glenn Whelan,

“I think the experience showed.  The big players performed.  It’s the reason they are here with me. They have the experience to handle the expectation.”

Following Bruce’s failure to deliver promotion last season and the arrival of new majority owners Nassef Sawiris and Wesley Edens, he has now sought to reinvent himself as someone who believes in young and hungry players.

“We have to be a bit younger than we were last year – when you look back, too many of the squad we had put together last year was on the wrong side of 30.  So we need a bit more freshness, a bit more legs and a bit more energy.”

For a manager who claims to know what he is doing, Bruce gives a wonderful impression of someone who does not.

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In two years as manager of Aston Villa it is impossible to say what Steve Bruce truly believes in, how he envisages his team playing or what exactly he had in mind with his (now more than twenty) signings.

Little is gleaned from interviews with Bruce in terms of tactical sophistication other than the somewhat basic instruction, “All I ask is they (players) put their boots on, roll their sleeves up and give it a go.”

Admirers of Bruce have praised his honesty in interviews, though many of Bruce’s most revealing comments, such as his remark that ‘I’m not really into tactics’, when he was Sunderland manager, affirm what many of his critics believe. That he is a man without a plan, who is struggling to stay afloat in the ever-changing landscape of the Championship.

Club Identity

Unfortunately, Steve Bruce is perhaps the most obvious symptom of a club which has for too long had no direction, no plan and no obvious identity.

In respect of choosing managers, it perhaps doesn’t need to be said that a club that starts a manager search with Roberto Martinez and ends with the appointment of Alex McLeish is lacking direction.

Some managerial appointments have been populist demands from fans such as Paul Lambert (who fans wanted to replace McLeish), plus short-term appointments to avoid relegation or appointments made at the wrong time with totally the wrong squad of players.

Aston Villa have struggled to keep pace with our former, similar-sized rivals such as Tottenham and Everton and since Randy Lerner became Aston Villa owner the club has been making losses every single season when almost every Premier League club has been making profits.

The continuous mismanagement of Aston Villa almost resulted in administration this summer along with heavy FFP penalties, but the club was thankfully saved (at least temporarily) from this embarrassment by a change of ownership and additional investment.

Have we learned from our mistakes, or by continuing with Steve Bruce have the new owners given him licence to gamble again on promotion?

Successful Models

Much has been written recently about ‘philosophy’ managers following the success of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp in the Premier League and the way they have shaped the identity of their clubs according to their own individual styles.

To a lesser extent, Leeds have begun the process of modelling their club in the image of Marcelo Bielsa after they engaged in protracted negotiations with the Argentine coach to secure his appointment.

Leeds decision to appoint Bielsa was of course a risky one, given his recent history at clubs such as Lazio and Lille, but it was an imaginative appointment which is so far paying off.  Leeds currently sit at the top of the Championship as we head into the international break, having played an eye-catching brand of football under their new coach.

The flag-bearer of pragmatic football, Jose Mourinho, has of course suffered a dent in his reputation in recent years and Steve Bruce, who claims to be Mourinho’s biggest fan, was on hand to lend support to his friend at a recent game at Old Trafford where Spurs thrashed United 3-0.

Pragmatists can find no strength in numbers right now it seems, and the pattern of pragmatists being replaced by philosophy managers also saw Sam Allardyce replaced at Everton by Marco Silva. Silva suffered relegation with Hull, moved clubs quickly from Hull to Watford (where he was sacked) to Everton but was nevertheless appointed by Everton because they believed he had a vision they wanted at their club.

I hope that Aston Villa’s new Chief Executive, Christian Purslow, follows this example by removing the pragmatist Bruce and replacing him with a coach who has a clear philosophy such as Oscar Garcia.

New Manager

I know the arguments from Aston Villa fans who would prefer other managers,

“Well, ok, Garcia won league titles with RB Salzburg and Maccabi Tel Aviv but couldn’t most managers win a title with one of the big favourites?”

Isn’t that exactly what Aston Villa do need now though?

Someone who can handle the expectation of winning?  Someone who can make a good squad of players play up to their level and win a league? If it was as simple as fans think then why hasn’t Steve Bruce managed to claim one of six promotion places available in the past two seasons with such gilded squads at his disposal?

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Bruce certainly failed miserably with the promotion favourite last season and has thus far had another poor start to this season where Aston Villa look far from being one of the favourites.

In respect of Garcia’s title at Maccabi Tel Aviv, this wasn’t such a foregone conclusion anyway. He was invited to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv by Johan Cruyff’s son, Jordi, and he won the club their first league title in 10 years.  Israeli newspapers commented at the time, “He took a depressed club and infused it with new life.  He took a club that had collapsed and returned it to its former glory.”

In terms of working with young players, Garcia previously coached Barcelona U19’s and played an attacking 4-3-3 system with players such as Gerard Deulofeu, Rafinha and Mauro Icardi. Garcia won only the second treble in the club’s history, at that level, with his young team and was promised a position as Barca B coach but the promise was broken by incoming Barcelona President, Sandro Rosell.

Garcia moved to Brighton in 2013, who had been playing in League 1 in 2011, before their promotion to the Championship. Although he was given no money to spend, only loans and free transfers and had the 13th most valuable squad in the league that season, Garcia finished in the play-off places, losing to Derby in the semi-final.  Garcia helped develop Jesse Lingard (on loan) and Solly March (youngster at Brighton) in his season at Brighton and they are both now Premier League regulars.

Had Steve Bruce made the play-offs with Brighton under similar circumstances, I am certain his supporters would have hailed this achievement as a minor miracle.  Bruce’s supporters still claim that a 13th place finish in the 2016/17 season was a laudable achievement as Aston Villa manager despite the club spending £90m on transfer fees.


Another argument against Garcia is the alleged ‘stability’ that Steve Bruce offers in comparison. Is this fair to say?

Bruce has made over twenty signings at Aston Villa in less than two years which is an unsettling ‘churn’ for any team.  In addition, the club almost went into administration following his two successive failures to deliver promotion, which is not my idea of stability.

His team also has no stable identity on the pitch. Did the team that turned up at Bramall Lane look like they had a style or plan?

Garcia resigned from Saint Etienne, a Ligue 1 team, last season following disagreements with the board over their failure to deliver on promises made to him when he was appointed. Garcia then resigned from Olympiakos after joining them as the third manager the club had appointed in 2017/18. In retrospect, it wasn’t a good choice of club to manage at that moment and the eccentric Olympiakos owner has previously sacked some very good managers.

Whilst these recent appointments cannot be considered to have been successful, other clubs like Leeds and Everton have been prepared to look beyond a managers last job and be open-minded about what a coach could offer to their club in terms of coaching and ideas.


Aston Villa desperately needs a philosophy and direction. Why not try someone who has played for and coached alongside Johan Cruyff and who witnessed how Cruyff transformed Barcelona?

Pep Guardiola recently commented that many former Barcelona players who played for Cruyff had gone on to become successful coaches.  Guardiola, also appears to be regard Garcia as a good coach, since he has recommended him for jobs in Spain in recent years.

Garcia joined Barcelona when he was nine years old and Johan Cruyff played an influential role in his career on two occasions by giving Garcia his Barcelona debut, as a player, in 1991 and inviting him to be his Assistant Manager, as a coach, at the Catalan national team.

 “For me Cruyff was the most important coach to learn about football from with a very clear philosophy.”

Garcia also played for Sir Bobby Robson and Jose Mourinho when they managed Barcelona in the season after Cruyff left and he has clear ideas regarding how he wants his teams to play,

“I grew up with a very clear philosophy.  I spent all my life in Barca.  I like the style of attacking football, it’s the best style to win games. I love to study how to make the opponent suffer, how to make use of the qualities of my players, I have a passion for it.”

Guardiola, also appears to be regard Garcia as a good coach, since he has recommended him for jobs in Spain in recent years.


There are arguments, of course, to be made for other managers such as Dean Smith at Brentford.  Whilst I like Smith and the football his teams play, he has never played for or managed a big club and has never managed a club who are expected to fight for the title.

In addition, the playing style has largely been the same at Brentford for the past decade. With a revolving door of managers and young players who arrive, play nicely and are then sold for a profit.

In previous years there have been populist calls from Villa fans for Gary Rowett (currently struggling at Stoke and not someone who generally plays attacking football) and Nigel Pearson (who was sacked at Derby after nine games following various dressing-room altercations).

For these reasons, I hope we avoid a ‘man of the moment’ appointment and focus on appointing an ambitious coach who has a vision to rebuild Aston Villa, properly, and prevent us from being the victim to the sort of gambling we’ve seen in recent years.

In addition, I hope the next Aston Villa manager will be someone whose tactical sophistication isn’t limited to asking players to,

“Put their boots on, roll their sleeves up and give it a go…”


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  1. I will vouch for Ralph Hassenhutl. Took unfashionable Ingolstadt to the Bundesliga and they finished in the top half in their first season back. Took RB Leipzig to the Championship in their first season back to Bundesliga. In short,there are lots of managers around who would certainly love a challenge with Villa. Steve Bruce has stabilised us but it is time for him to leave am afraid.

  2. I can’t help but feel convinced Steve Bruce is nigh on clueless.

    His remedy for his mounting problems just seems to be focused on more player acquisition in the hope one combination or another will eventually click. Yes, there is no plan.

    His approach is now creating a further complications for him. By so heavily investing in fresh players and moving no one on permanently, player morale/satisfaction in invariably going to suffer by virtue of bloating bunch I now label as ‘the forgotten’.

    He has created a pool of ‘discards’, who know their Villa careers are pretty much over (Steer, Bunn, De Laet, Richards, Elphick, Tshibole, Gardner, Adomah, Lansbury, McCormack and, arguably, Hogan). Add to that players who will likely leave at the end of the season, as new contracts are (or should be) unlikely – Jedinak and Whelan and we quickly accumulate thirteen senior players. Then there is the young players being pushed out of any type of contention. Oh, and there is more – you may have noticed he has now resorted to rotating Whelan and Bjarnason in an out too, presumably because the latter is pretty cheesed off and the former is a Brucie favourite, so must be similarly kept sweet.

    If there is a recipe for the wheels falling off the wagon, then this looks a good bet to me. Our loans out to other sides are growing steadily, much of which will involved heavily salary subsidies on our part. On the flip side, I think Bruce considers loans in to be zero items on the balance sheet. He is keen to express how little he has spent, but fails to consider or deliberately ignores the heavy salary burden and loan fees he readily incurs.

    Yes, I fear a long old season ahead.

    Whether the new hierarchy will be bold and switch manager, I don’t know. However, I do sense Bruce feels he has limited time to turn his fortunes around.

    Both Garcia or Smith have merit as alternative choices to the current incumbent. Above all, I wholeheartedly agree with Shelley’s piece insofar as whoever does come in, he must be a manager with plan, a philosophy that is adhered to and has effective means to communicate his vision to the players.

    We need to move forwards and Steve Bruce simply does not offer that option.

  3. A level headed summary of our predicament and what we should do about.I am prepared to be and would be patient if we appointed a real coach with a vsion and a philosophy.Some method and style,moving the ball quickly with variety and organisation,rather than get it wide and hope for the best.The “get stuck in lads,put your boots on,give it 100 percent,our effort was magnificent” school of football MUST end,yes I’m talking about MON.Bruce,Allerdyce,Moyes,McLeish,McCarthy etc.Please,please,we must never have anyone like that near our club again.Football has moved on,and so must we,we need to catch,it’s worth a coulple of years pain if we get the right man.Right now getting promoted with SB would do more harm than good,a bullet was dodged by not getting promoted in May.We are simply not prepared for it,nor worthy of it.More huge turnover of players and staff etc.We’ve wasted the last 2 seasons and will blow it again this year,the likes of Green discarded and replaced by loan players played out of position.Bree played 50 ish games for Barnsley as a teen but is deemed not good enough to play in a defence leaking goals.Why buy these players Bruce?Anyway,going of point now,great comments and opinions by the way,thanks for reading,goodnight all.

  4. Too many folk are getting hung up on the suggestion made here of Oscar Garcia. That’s a personal call, and it has its merits. The essential thing to understand is that Villa need a manager with a vision of how he wants to play football first and foremost. We have repeatedly gone down the ‘big name’ route – repeatedly gone for ‘experience’ – and repeatedly hired men who focus on result football rather than expansive progressive football.

    Villa need some of the same courage and vision that saw Leeds hire Marcelo Bielsa – who was clearly a risky appointment. Look at Watford – hiring a manager with limited experience in the Spanish second tier – and with zero Premier League experience in Javi Gracia. Watford are playing as well as they ever have.

    It’s not about star names it is about potential. Villa need a manager/coach who promotes a positive way of playing and who spends more time on the training field than he does in his office. Someone who coaches how he wants his team to use the ball and does it across all levels of our club. Our academy teams play better linked up football than our first team – anyone with eyes to see can confirm this. This is what we should be focusing on – the Villa Engine – a unified system of playing across the whole club – much like Ajax and Porto manage.

    Bruce like Di Matteo is primarily an office based manager – a player picker – and with the talent in our squads at all levels we need someone who prefers the training field. In this, his third season, Bruce’s Villa still don’t have any discernible style or pattern of play. They are set up to sit deep and when they do attack it is long balls into channels or overlaps down the flanks hitting hopeful crosses to a lone striker. That is the sum total of our style – everything else is dependent on players having a moment of magic – which is why Bruce is so focused on his personnel – he has no other string to his bow.

    I have no suggestions for who should come next but I do know it should be someone who believes in coaching a progressive way of playing football that loves the ball, and someone who is relentless in practising that on the training field. One look at how Leeds United have been transformed without spending anywhere near what Villa have reinforces the one fundamental truth about professional football. It is more about coaches than players.


  5. Roger Schmidt.

    I like Bruce. I really do but we need to win and get a identity. The man above was a architect of some great sides. Garcia or Schmidt. Someone with a philosophy.

    • our issues stem from decades of bad appointments o’dreary, houllier, garde, lamberk, di matteo villa have no philosophy in the way they play, the fans have been force fed, dull disjointed un imaginative styles. work in the transfer market giving rise to the ‘bomb’ squad too many bad signings to name. millions of £ wasted until bankruptcy, liquidation loomed. i thought bruce would get us up last year, i really did.but nonsensical decisions to play an aging midfielder at centre back an experiment first tried in a home game against forest, where they were repeatedly cut apart by a side tactically years ahead of the dull rubbish, villa were turning out villa fans long to see a manager who is tactically savvy, able to produce a side that can play a fast fluid enjoyable style that people actually want to come and watch. the loyalty of the fans is taken for granted but, look across the city to birmingham city, a stadium which can’t hold 30,000 has a near empty attendance against its city rivals and a totally empty one for the next biggest yearly game against wolverhampton. could villa go the same way? YES, and its time somebody recognised the fact.

  6. I think the investors have a plan in place to take our great club forward and will not tolerate a manager who has won promotion out of the championship 4 times and not stayed there

  7. Awful game and result but lets keep some perspective here!! – come on Brucie you can do it.

  8. Bruce has worked hard and stabilised a club which was a compete embarrassment before and was one game away from being promoted. You mention the number of players that have come in and out under Bruce but you don’t mention under the circumstances that it happened and also the complete mess the club was in behind the scenes which we all know a lot of has been outside his control. Let’s get behind him and see how the new signings gel and then judge him. If he doesn’t perform then of course he has to go but give them man some credit for what he has done too. Agree though letting Elphick and Green go were bad decisions in my opinion and the decision to keep persisting with Jedinak at the back and Tuenzebe as a RB could be the end for him…

    • some very valid points about Bruce and what he’s done for the club . But it seems that some fans are determined to have a change of manager come what may , .
      But who do we get ? Some have suggested ex players & fans . But some reject Smith as no real experience . But there is an ex Vila player with managerial experience in the Conference available as his last couple have not gone as well as his time @ Preston who he nicked a few of Villa’s youth players for
      Who ? why Simon Grayson who @ one time was labelled as a promicing young manager

  9. I think Steve Bruce has always fluked it i remember a good friend of mine a Hull supporter hated the lack of tactics, using wide men with no one in the box and out of position players. Ring any bells? For me not fancying a player who needed games to gain confidence scored in our first league game this season, was Captain when Bournemouth was promoted, yet sent out on loan when we have no recognised CB to replace him. We have a striker without a squad number who isn’t going anywhere so utilise him, sent out on loan he still managed 14 out of 17 games last season wide players need more than one player in the box to pick out McCormack can still do a job. 20 players in 2 seasons isn’t stability it’s throwing money and players at a problem and hoping it sticks.

    • villa have thrown money around on awful players, luna e.t.c and it hasn’t worked, a clear philosophy and playing style has eluded the fans for too long bruce? i don’t know, but i fear a new man will be in the chair by christmas and another season of failure will be greeted as it always has been badly.

  10. We have had so many crap managers. The worst have all been Scottish but there have been so many just incomprehensible appointments. Stan Collymore talked about ‘proper recruitment’. It seems the (according to the Evening Mail) mere 25% of us who want Bruce gone are all singing from that same sheet. Absolutely take your point about ‘men of the moment’, your knowledge of visionary foreign coaches is far greater than mine and the thought of someone who actually thinks toward a comprehensive approach to all things football as opposed to the piecemeal, back of a fag packet nonsense we’ve been served up makes my toes curl in anticipation.

    Unfortunately the new owners early touting of Henry gives little cause for hope – another mad gamble, another punt on a ‘big name’ without any pedigree or real experience in management. Only someone with an immensely arrogant ignorance could think that a good move. I remember when we could have had Cloughie, he wanted the job but the eminence at the top knew better.

    Surprise us gentlemen, shock the living crap out of us, do your due diligence, find us someone who wants to make a name leading the wounded giant back to the promised land in such a way that we can actually compete when we get back there rather than hang on as cannon fodder for those who took the opportunities we pissed up the wall.

  11. Firstly and this is my opinion, Bruce has totaly lost it and is no longer up to the job, he insists on playing Jedinak as CB and as has been said he must be the only person that can’t see that he is useless in that position, then he sends Tommy Elphick a CB out on loan, it’s hard to believe, and I don’t know how true it is but I read that Bruce was responsible for an excellent signing of TA but it seems that it was down to Grealish and John Terry to convince him to come. So come on Villa get a new manager in now before it’s too late. If it isn’t already.

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