It was expected to play out a little like this…
After dropping further points due to his unbalanced defence, Steve Bruce would see the error of his ways and drop Mile Jedinak from centre back. Bringing in the only other legitimate option, Tommy Elphick (or any other centre back he had drafted in during the loan window), until he could draft in an upgrade to his liking.
How it actually played out was the scorer of Aston Villa’s first goal of this season, Elphick, has moved to Hull City on a season-long loan, and Bruce failed to get any replacement over the line in the loan window. In the very next game, Sheffield United walked through Villa’s defence and were 4-0 up after just 49 minutes.
Suddenly the season wasn’t looking so rosy.
With all the transfer windows closed, Villa are now aiming for promotion with only ONE recognised centre back in James Chester in the squad. Normally, a balanced squad has four recognised centre backs.
So, what has Bruce’s damage limitation plan been?
Well, he has a potential player that could develop into a centre back in Axel Tuanzebe, who certainly has the athleticism and speed to grow into the position. He demonstrated that against Yeovil in the League Cup. A further outing in the position was expected against Burton, but instead Bruce chose to play the Manchester United loanee as a defensive midfielder.
Lets recap a little…
First of all, Bruce loans in another team’s player, who truth be told, doesn’t really improve the Villa first XI. He puts him ahead in the pecking order of James Bree, who he signed outright. The similarly aged Bree plays the same positions as Tuanzebe, and it would benefit Villa more in the long-run for him to get games.
Never mind that though, Bruce then elects to play Tuanzebe in the right-back position, for which Villa already have four legitimate options (Hutton, de Laet, Elmohamady and Bree) in that position. Is he noticeably better than any of them? Not really.
Contrast that to Villa’s woes at left-back…where we’re still desperate for a decent left-footed player in the position.
Back to that Burton game. Why try Tuanzebe out at defensive midfielder, a position that is also well covered? I mean, Villa already have three internationals contesting the position (Whelan, Jedinak and Bjarnason).
What Bruce is doing defensively this season, doesn’t seem to carry much logic to it. Throw in the fact, he himself was one of the best centre backs the Premier League has ever known and it’s even more puzzling
Back in 2016, Elphick was considered a solid signing by Roberto Di Matteo, after he had captained Bournemouth to the Championship title playing at centre back. He didn’t have the greatest of starts at Villa – not helped by an unsettled backline and the mistakes of a young keeper. When Steve Bruce came to Villa, to take over from Di Matteo, it was soon evident that he didn’t fancy the centre back he had inherited.
Elphick soldiered on and when John Terry was injured last season, Elphick filled in admirably, well, when he was allowed to.
Even after a man of the match performance, Bruce demonstrated that Elphick was a last resort to him, playing midfielder Mile Jedinak at centre back, despite the Aussie’s lack of mobility and mistakes that cost Villa two points at home to Sheffield United.
Unwanted Elphick was then loaned out.
Failed Defensive Recruitment
Having gone to Reading last season on loan, it was no surprise to see the centre-back looking to another loan out this season, after he was once again dropped in favour of Jedinak.
Bruce’s plan had been to get Le Havre centre back Harold Moukoudi to replace Tommy Elphick in the squad, but the 20-year-old decided to stay in France.
Bruce had doubts about getting it over the line, when he spoke to press before the Sheffield United game.
“Whether it’s the right time to leave France, I think that’s the big complication there,” said Bruce.
“He’s the one we’ve been pursuing but as he’s still young, he feels he will be better in France.”
Villa had also looked at the longer term option of Aberdeen’s 21-year-old centre-back Scott McKenna, but while their offer may have been in the acceptance ballpark, their late bid didn’t give the Dons much time to get a replacement in for one of their prized assets.
Dons manager Derek McInnes has earlier gone on record saying the defender was “too good” for the Championship, when the likes of Swansea City and Hull City were chasing his services.
If the Dons boss knew it wasn’t a good idea to continue into the season weakened in the centre back department, why didn’t Bruce?
In MOMS opinion, Elphick should have carried on at centre back after the Hull game. Jedinak playing at DM would have kept his aerial strength in the team (if Bruce was so desperate for it) and Villa would have had a much better balance to their backline straight away.
Elphick’s morale would have been positive and he would have stuck around. I don’t blame Elphick for wanting to get out of Villa, he was simply trying to save his career, which was being stunted under Bruce.
If Hull aren’t paying Elphick’s full wages (which are top end for this level) – I wouldn’t be surprised – then that would be even more of a disappointment to how this scenario has played out.
Surely having Elphick around was a better option than fumbling around with [failed] attempts at last minute deadline day loans? Sounder ground work could have been done to strengthen in the lead up to January, if Bruce either wanted to upgrade the position or get in more depth.
This is not hindsight, this is common sense.
The same applies to loaning out Jed Steer, a decent enough stop-gap keeper at this level. Bruce was fully aware that an overseas keeper such as Orjan Nyland, would need a period of time to adjust (and this is not even mentioning the previous question marks over his ability).
If you can bring in headline grabbing loans such as Tammy Abraham and Yannick Bolasie, then it’s hard to mitigate against such fundamental squad building errors when it comes to Villa’s defence.
Of course, you don’t always get the signings you want in any given transfer window, but you must ensure by the end of it, you haven’t created a glaring weakness in the squad.
Why are we continuing to gamble on the future of this club, instead of acting with purpose and good sense?
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