As the old saying goes, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and that feeling certainly applies to a season in the Championship. This league is a long, hard slog, and promotion isn’t easily won – as Villa know all too well after two seasons of failure.
This is Villa’s third shot at promotion, and if the early season running is anything to go by, this campaign is going to be as difficult as the previous two. Last season, despite Villa starting as the bookies second favourites behind Middlesbrough for the title, even from the off, everything pointed to Wolves running away with the league.
Despite a poor start, Fulham also lived up to their early billing, once their captain Tom Cairney returned from an early season injury and they bought in Aleksandar Mitrović on loan in the January window. The fact that Cardiff gate crashed the party, squeezing in between the two highly fancied teams, gave away the league’s worst-kept secret: that this division is invariably wide open, and there for the taking.
Cardiff City last season is the benchmark that Villa boss Steve Bruce needs to be judged by last term. His Villa team were much superior on paper, but seemingly not on grass.
With this season six games old, the table is already beginning to take shape. It’s going to take another couple of months before we really get a clearer picture of the genuine promotion contenders, but we’ve got some early indications of them already.
The current top six don’t really contain many surprises. Leeds and Middlesbrough have both got off to flying starts, with four wins and two draws from six – and of course, the pair drew 0-0 with each other just before the international break. Just below these, in third, are Sheffield United, followed by Derby, Brentford and then Bristol City. All of which, competed for the play-off spots into the final weeks last season.
Three of those clubs – Leeds, Boro and Derby – were among the pre-season favourites; Sheffield United and Bristol City made quick starts last season, before running out of steam and fading away.
Brentford? Quite possibly punching above their weight, but seasoned observers of this league should be more than aware of the quietly impressive progress Dean Smith has been making there.
Whether the Bees can stay the course is another question but then again, why not? Brentford fans will point to the game against Villa as being the first time they hadn’t played a team off the park, and even at Villa Park they were literally seconds from victory.
You can usually bank on at least ‘unfancied’ team to surprise by mounting a promotion push – the Premier League is now littered with such successful teams like Burnley, Bournemouth and Huddersfield. There’s no reason it can’t be Brentford, who will surely be actively aiming for a play-off spot (they are currently fourth favourites for the title at 6/1).
Tucked just beneath the top six are two of the teams relegated the Premier League. Swansea and West Brom seem to have weathered that initial period of adjustment that hits newly relegated clubs and look decently placed to be in a position to challenge. Sandwiched between the two are the season’s early surprise package, Bolton.
Stoke City haven’t even been mentioned yet and they were the bookies favourites for the Championship title during preseason.
So, you get the picture. There’s already a large group of potential contenders before we come to Villa.
How can we assess Villa’s opening six games? Below average is perhaps the most accurate. Considering the fixtures, a return of nine points has to be considered a deeply disappointing start to the season (especially when you consider they are winless in the last four of those).
Five of the points have come against three clubs in the bottom four – Reading, Ipswich and Hull. The home victory over Wigan was achieved with an injury time winner; the home draw against Brentford through an equaliser deep into storage time.
The least said about the defeat to Sheffield United, the better. The toughest fixture on paper, and Villa were roundly thrashed – lucky to escape with a 4-1 scoreline.
Despite the usual distribution of blame, and over-inflation of earlier performances – Villa’s display against Brentford wasn’t the ‘best seen in years’ as the manager claimed – it’s right that Steve Bruce is being scrutinised.
Villa are now out to 14/1 to the title and that could be viewed either as about right, or very good value considering Yannick Bolasie and Tammy Abraham haven’t kicked a ball yet.
Certainly, in terms of the front six positions, Villa have the best squad in the league. Which other Championship side can call on the likes of Jack Grealish, Conor Hourihane, John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazie, Jonathan Kodjia, Scott Hogan and the aforementioned Bolasie and Abraham?
Defensively, it’s a different story. Whether through bad planning, poor judgement or sheer misfortune – the former two more likely – Villa have been left with a handful of right-backs and scant options everywhere else across the backline.
Bruce is believed to be scouring the free transfer market to add some depth but still, it’s an almost unforgiveable situation for Villa to find themselves in. There’s significant room for improvement.
The period from now until Christmas will tell us a lot more. Yet already, Leeds are the team catching the eye. They’ve been playing some exhilarating stuff – Villa fans can only look on, enviously, and ponder what might be if a braver coach were to ever get the chance with a very talented squad. The attacking style of football Leeds are showcasing is testament to the work and vision of Marcelo Bielsa who, over the course of pre-season, has reinvigorated the squad (it’s pretty much the same players as last season).
Longevity is usually the issue with Bielsa. The Argentinian has had four clubs since 2014, famously quitting Lazio after two days and lasting just 13 games at Lille. But if he can stick around for the season, and the Leeds players don’t suffer burnout come spring due to the high intensity nature of their play, they should be contenders.
Middlesbrough have an entirely different type of coach in the form of the pragmatic Tony Pulis. There’s nothing subtle or secret about how Pulis sets his teams up and Boro are no different – organised, well drilled, difficult to beat. Everything, in fact, that we might have expected a Steve Bruce Villa side to be (but aren’t).
Fair enough – Boro won’t be the most entertaining team to watch but they will be strong. Unlike Bruce, Pulis has invested in defence first, adding Aden Flint, Danny Batth and Sam McQueen to an already decent backline. George Saville and Jordan Hugill were smart loan picks; all in all, Boro have a well rounded squad.
Elsewhere, Sheffield United have added to last season’s squad and are a year wiser – and better – and we can expect Derby, West Brom and Swansea to gain in momentum. Stoke’s form is surely bound to pick up at some point, too.
All of which means Villa need to find their stride sooner rather than later – and stop dropping daft points. There’s still 40 games to go, but as we know, Villa can’t afford to fall too far behind the leading pack.
Autumn results are key to Bruce staying on at Villa, slim pickings and he certainly won’t be trusted to tackle the tough December fixture list that lines Villa up against five legitimate promotion contenders.