Reeling from Wembley Heartbreak, Where do Villa go From Here?

By Kevin Hughes

Failure Story

Losing the EFL Championship play-off final is a new and miserable experience for Villa, yet it also feels gloomily familiar. Villa and big occasions at Wembley have tended to end badly in recent years, with defeats in the 2015 FA Cup Final and 2010 League Cup Final, and, further back, the 2000 FA Cup Final defeat to Chelsea. That defeat still haunts me to a certain extent, lurking deep in my consciousness. Attending the game that day in a professional capacity, I’ll never forget interviewing celebrating Chelsea players – including a beaming goalscorer Roberto Di Matteo – in the mixed zone afterwards as Villa’s dejected squad trooped by.

Villa were nearly but not quite again at Wembley on Saturday. Just like that May day in 2000, and 2015 – in 2010 at least we gave it a good go – the team didn’t really turn up. Most of Villa’s big players were poor, save for Jack Grealish, who was far from flawless but was involved in pretty every positive moment the team delivered.

No real complaints about the outcome. Fulham were sharper, and cooler, and more clinical. They were rewarded for a bright start. Just as we’d seen in the FA Cup Final a week before, if one team allows the other to impose themselves on the game and take the initiative in the first half, you’ve put yourself in a weak situation. Villa allowed Fulham to take control, score the decisive goal and the Londoners were organised and disciplined enough to manage the game in the second half.

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Tactical Downfall

Tactically, two elements frustrated me during the game. One, that sloppy, sluggish first half. When you face an opponent renowned for ball retention and possession, surely the worst thing you can do is let them have the ball for long periods?

Secondly, the substitutions in the last third of the game. Not for the first time this season, throwing on two strikers – Jonathan Kodija and Scott Hogan – but keeping Lewis Grabban on just made Villa top heavy. It might have looked bold but it was naive. All sense of team shape was lost, and it left Villa with so little presence in the middle of midfield that we just couldn’t get hold of the ball – Grealish, our most creative attacking player, forced to step deeper to help support the only recognised central midfielder left on the field, Josh Onomah. When Conor Hourihane limped off, the smarter move would have been to bring Glenn Whelan (or Birkir Bjarnason) on to at least help win the ball and supply the front players. As it was, the last 15-20 mins was probably Fulham’s most comfortable period of the second half.

Game Changer

Still, it’s gone now. Villa lost. The sooner the club shakes off its play-off hangover the better, because now there’s some serious discussions to be had, and decisions to be made. A third season in the Championship will almost certainly be a game changer. The parachute payments awarded to relegated Premier League clubs will still be there, but vastly reduced – down to £15m – and that’s the third and final payment. The club’s finances will come under heavy pressure, particularly with the threat of FFP restrictions. Having missed out on promotion, there’s now the very real and genuine prospect of Villa’s stay in the Championship being a long-term one.

The summer will be an intense period of departures, soul-searching and rebuilding. It’s been a refreshing change to see stability at Villa for the last year but now it’s back to tearing it all up again. Let’s hope the club’s management planned specifically for this outcome and know exactly what needs to be done.

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Another Squad Overhaul

A massive squad overhaul is inevitable. Straight away, a number of players will leave. The four players on loan this season – Grabban, Sam Johnstone, Robert Snograss and Onomah – will return to parent clubs. The contracts of Alan Hutton, John Terry, Chris Samba and Mark Bunn will all expire and they should all leave, too. For a club which needs to significantly slash its wage budget, these are all open goal opportunities that Villa should take.

Yes, Terry would be a loss. There’s a footballing case for keeping him another year but two things. One, would he be up for another year in the Championship? And two, with a reported weekly salary of £80k, he’d be a massive saving on the wage bill (also, he turns 38 at the end of this year).

There are players who have been loaned out to come back – notably goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, Carles Gil and Tommy Elphick, and still, the issues with Micah Richards and Ross McCormack. Huge earners who each contributed zero to the club this past season.

Then there are the players Villa have signed since being in the Championship, who are partway through contracts that, presumably, pay pretty well and certainly way higher than the average at this level. Mile Jedinak and Glenn Whelan, both solid performers and good pros during their time at the club but heading towards their mid-30s. Neil Taylor and Henri Lansbury, neither in the Wembley squad and not worth retaining. Those two might have some sell-on value, albeit slight.

The trouble is, it’s never as simple as getting rid of the average, the overpaid, the ageing, the overrated. There will be pressure to sell players Villa really want to keep. I’d dearly love Villa to keep four players beyond all others for next season, a core of James Chester, Hourihane, Grealish and Hogan. But Chester is under 30 and, in my opinion, good enough to play in the Premier League for anyone outside the usual top six and Grealish is clearly capable of thriving at the higher level. We might be fortunate and get another season out of them but if Villa receive good offers for either, they might be tough to turn down.

Hourihane is perhaps currently happy at this level. Hogan has been in and out of the team – I’m personally disappointed he saw limited game time over the final two months of the season – but his age (26) and goalscoring record makes him a sellable asset (although, it’s unlikely Villa could make close to their money back). I’d prefer Villa to sacrifice Albert Adomah (31 in December) and/or Kodija, who turns 30 next year and has a question mark over his fitness post injury over any of the four I’ve mentioned.

Any recruitment has to be shrewd and clever. We need a leaner, meaner and hungrier Villa next season. There is a decent depth of U23 talent for Villa to tap into, at least, and there should be larger roles for James Bree, Andre Green and Keinan Davis.

Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Calum O’Hare, Jake Doyle-Hayes, Mitch Clark, Matija Sarkic and Corey Blackett-Taylor all deserve opportunities to become regulars in the first team squad. Certainly in preference to Villa signing fringe players to bulk out the squad – a luxury the club will no longer have.

The Big Decision

All of which leads back to the manager. Steve Bruce’s future is perhaps the first, and most telling, decision, the club has to make. And soon. I’m not going to get involved in any knee-jerk clamour to move Bruce on. But my thoughts are this – it needs a clear-headed discussion by Villa’s senior management. I have a lot of time for him. Bruce is an affable, likeable man and I don’t doubt for a second that he’s poured everything into this past season. We know the personal tragedies he’s had to bear, in 2018; he’s worn his heart on his sleeve and his emotions all over his face. I’m sure the Wembley defeat will have left him absolutely shattered.

What I will say is this. Bruce has a good track record at achieving promotion from the Championship – and he nearly pulled it off again – but I’m not sure he’s done it with pared-back resources and the environment Villa will be in next season. Plus, the tactical doubts I’ve held about him since he took over have never been completely eased; the cautious-first approach that ceded initiative to opponents on too many occasions has been his default too often for my liking.

He was probably the right fit for the squad last season, but I’m not convinced he’ll be the right fit for next season’s squad. As Villa gather themselves together, shake off bitter disappointment and prepare for what will be the club’s toughest challenge for decades, the managerial position is surely the first of many difficult decisions.


Follow Kev on Twitter here – @KevHughesie

These supporter opinion pieces are not necessarily the views of My Old Man Said

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  1. Perhaps another reason why I think replacing Bruce now might be for the better, lies with the longer term position. IF we can obtain promotion next season, I really cannot see him being the man for Premier League survival, which the initial season or two will likely entail.

    Bruce has a fairly formulaic approach with a few rudimentary ingredients underpinning his game plan, namely a tight defence, reliance on experience and physical muscle just in front, followed by wing men to provide supply to an expensive goal scorer up top. There is nothing wrong with those features in themselves, but I don’t think he can really develop sides much beyond that to match then needs of the modern game. Certainly there was no real linkage through the middle to the front man this season, other than via the wingers (who lost impetus by cutting inside onto their favoured foot), which probably accounted for little Hogan’s scant goal return.

    We played with an orphaned striker for most of the campaign. Grealish, working alone, often struggled to link up midfield with the attack. Sometimes it appears as if Whelan’s struggled with the pace of the game and led Hourihane holding back to help. In fact, both the former and Jedinak’s relative slowness and the wingers need to either shift inside or pull up and cross, led to what many saw as a slow and ponderous side. Add in the Chester/Terry combination and the lack of pace across the park was very evident.

    If Elphick does secure a permanent position at Reading, I see that pretty much as confirmation Chester will stay – hooray!. He will likely be skipper and would benefit from a quicker player as partner. Whether that is Tuanzebe, on a new loan deal or, dare I suggest, young Suliman is open to debate.

    All things considered, to sort ourselves out now, even if painful, must be the way forward..

  2. I am torn between 2 thoughts. Financial constraints will mean huge changes. First, we will lose all the loan players. Will our best assests, grealish, Chester, stay. We have 8 players out on loan , only gardener has had any play time, leaving the rest like all the other failures in the squad worthless a bad influence and due to high wages, impossible to move on. So the legacy left by learner is as bad and with less revenue worse. Loaning in players so we can pay to develope them for other clubs leaves our own kids, many of whom were good prospects, dissillusioned and with no experience. A play off place and a lucky 3 games our only hope for the next 10 years.

    Yet, the potential of many of these players is still there. If we can find someone of getting the best from them we still have a huge squad of previously good players and some quality youngsters.

    In either of the above scenarios I cannot see Bruce as that man. He has tried with his methods and came close but failed. Someone else now needs to sort out the huge mess he leaves behind. Keep the faith!!!

  3. Bruce – We brought him in to take us up and you can argue that for a season and half he has delivered pretty close. That QPR – Norwich period that effectively cost us automatic was mostly down to the players. Ultimately he failed so maybe should be fired, I am just not convinced however what is better out there. 20% of the squad he has is overpaid garbage, not sure how much of that is his fault.

    Adomah – Cannot believe I will say this about a guy who without we would be mid table. But he disappoints me. Does not take players on, is not adventurous enough, he can go.

    Grealish – I honestly believe he owes us another year. I do not think a big 5 yeam will come in for him and honestly I will be disappointed if he leaves us for someone like Everton.

    Hogan – I think he is disappointing more because of our style of play. He would do well playing off Kodja or Davies but no point keeping him in this set up.

    Hourihane – Take away the Norwich & Blues games and I think it is really slim pickings. Very unimpressed. You can guarantee 30 mins into most games I will have a “oh yeah Hourihane is playing” moment.

    Terry (& Chester) – Our defence is slow and immobile. Terry & Chester together when playing fast pacey teams give me the willies. Time to let Terry go.

    The Kids – I hear it a lot. And I certainly would be happier seeing the, available on the Bench than Whelan, Taylor, Landsbury etc. But I think the majority of the sides going up have an experienced vein in the team. Certainly lets start seeing them more but to throw out the experience and gamble is …… well a gamble.

  4. Never been a Bruce fan and nothing to do with the Blues connection. We seem to have a speciality in the idiotic if not utterly baffling managerial appointment stakes dating back years. Time and again the wrong decisions, short term thinking and a refusal to see the big picture. Lots of clubs we have felt superior to have in place systems whereby they play exciting positive football using comparatively tiny resources. Everyone has clear roles, the team knows what to do when, when a player is snapped up they have a list of replacements already to hand. Compare this to the set up to defend a 0-0 lead approach, the never give the kids a chance approach, the remove the midfield to throw on strikers, the playing of personal favourites beyond any understandable reason. The way forward is clear and it has never been with a manager who has taken yo-yo clubs up more through luck than judgement. Unless we move in the right direction now (and I’m disgusted that he hasn’t immediately done the honourable thing and resigned) we will be the new Leeds. Dean Smith is my personal choice but above all it must be someone prepared to set the club up long term. The current management team were the ones spouting on about 3 teams, one to win the championship, one to consolidate the PL and then another to win the CL. Might I suggest we now look at setting the place up for the next ten years, starting with a complete break with the policy of buying everyone else in the championships best players, regardless of team fit and superannuated dinosaurs from the PL. Can we have a clear system, can we bring the kids through, can we play football please. I grew up with the buccaneering sides of the ’70’s – I’ve really had enough of this defensive anti-football crap. Can we please build a team that is part of a club where all pull together, not a bunch of individual ageing mercenaries incapable of movement or speed or thought.

  5. Agree entirely with the author of this post. The first, big decision is not about players, it’s the manager. Too many mistakes this season by him. Poor start left us in no better position by the first international break than we were under DiMatteo. Then a dreadful December, three points from five games, due to over cautious tactics at home and poor team selection. A win over Bristol City and Wolves gave us a chance of an automatic place, but then he screwed it up against QPR and Bolton. The QPR game did it for me. Twenty minutes in and he could have changed it. Thirty minutes in and he should have changed it. Not changing it at half time was baffling. Waiting until the hour mark was insanity. I always think the sign of a good manager is his ability to change the game. Throwing people on randomly when things are going wrong has been his hallmark. I have no confidence he can do any better next season. Time for a change of direction.

  6. The next rebuild will be crucial to the future of Villa, we have tried buying the championship and it hasn’t worked. We now dont have that luxury. In regards to Bruce I am torn but favoring getting a replacement that being said we have to admit we owe a lot to Bruce he has for the most part turned the toxic atmosphere surrounding the club away and spared us from doing a Sunderland and facing a double drop. For me the choice for manager would be either Dean Smith or Olof Mellberg (considering the incredible job he did in Sweden). We must hold on to Grealish and build around him with the likes of Green, Davis getting more key roles.

  7. If we stay with the same vision of mostly experience in the squad then Bruce will stay, if we go for more of a mixture and we do have capable players who will mature in a Villa shirt next season James Bree, Birkir Bjarnason should be first team regulars next year and with Elphick returning to partner Chester (if retained) we should be playing McCormack too, if Grealish goes he can play better in that position and get the goals, he played there for Fulham, if we’re having to pay them we should play them we can’t afford not to.

    We should be selling Kodja, Lansbury, Neil Taylor, and Grealish, we actually did quite ok without him when he was out injured or on the bench we certainly scored more goals, he’s a good player but we need much needed funds of which I would very much try and get Johnstone signed with some of that money.

  8. Sadly with respect to Bruce and his recent family losses but it is without doubt time for a change, he’s had his time now and I also would like to see Dean Smith given a go.
    Regarding players leaving personally I don’t see Grealish going anywhere. As for the rest yes Chester has to stay as does Hutton, and I think Bree will be a decent replacement for Terry, it’s time to give Green, Davis, and O’Hare a shot at the first team, Jedi will stay for sure so I believe we have the nucleus of a very good side if we don’t put too much pressure on them. Let’s be honest we had our chances and totaly bottled it when it came to the crunch, so yes changes are needed.

  9. Anyone with half a brain should be able to see that Bruce has to go now. He has had 2 seasons and a pile of transfer cash to assemble probably the biggest and best squad in the Championship and he has failed miserably. How the hell is he likely to succeed in getting us up with a depleted squad and depleted funds!

  10. There seem to be some interesting changes to the squad list on the OS Gollini seems not to be there but no news as to his future . However there are reports that Carles Gil will not be returning !
    As for who replaces Bruces if he’s shown the door that might be interesting as how many of his support team will want to play 2nd fiddle to a new manager when perhaps they might be thinking of managing a club them selves
    As for Kev mac stepping in would he after his previous experience of running the club ?
    Over the last 2-3 months there has been talk of Bruce formulating 2 plans for next season so the next couple of weeks may be interesting , but a massive overhaul could leave us in a worse position than last season if we have massive changes in both coaching & playing staff

  11. Sorry Steve but you’re on a rolling contract because you thought you were going to get the England job and you’ve had almost two seasons to sort it out so I would go with appointing Kevin MacDonald as caretaker manager now then approach Dean Smith / Gary Rowett etc.

  12. A fair summary.

    As you rightly point out, we have a big challenge. The modest re-sale values of many of the squad push me towards thinking Grealish and, perhaps, Kodjia are likely to be sacrificed. In many respects I would prefer this combination if that meant we could retain Chester.

    Although he is getting on a bit, Adomah’s goals would be missed if he moved on. Last season was the first one in a long time when the midfield provided goals. Snodgrass’s departure has taken some potency away, so Adomah’s loss would leave a big problem.

    I would also favour Hogan’s retention. I even wonder if he and Davis might work well in combination?

    First things first though, the choice of manager must be determined. Overall, I would err towards change for the same reasons raised in the article. Dean Smith would be my probable replacement.

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