Aston Villa closed out a win yesterday playing Leandro Bacuna and Jack Grealish as their central midfielders in a 4-4-2. It’s an occasion where the “*record scratch* *freeze frame*” meme would’ve probably been appropriate. “Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation,” Jack Grealish might say.
But hey, it worked.
Yesterday’s 2-1 win over Burton Albion marked the end of the first half of the season and, given where the club were when Steve Bruce took over a couple months ago, it’s ultimately a first half that shouldn’t be seen as too much of a letdown. When Bruce took over in October, he inherited a Villa side that had earned just 10 points in 11 matches. That was relegation pace. Now, the Claret and Blues sit on 34 points at the midway point, winning two points per match under Bruce. That’s automatic promotion pace.
In a career littered with impressive promotions, if Bruce finds a way to get Villa up, it might be his best accomplishment yet — and these first two months will have been key to that effort.
The football hasn’t been the prettiest — yesterday’s match by all accounts a good example — but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. After years of seemingly endless losing at Villa Park, winning matches however it happens is quite nice. And perhaps I’d have a different view on it if the squad Bruce inherited wasn’t flawed.
It’s not that Villa don’t have a talented group of players. In Jonathan Kodjia, Bruce has one of the best attacking players in the league, and between Albert Adomah, Jack Grealish, Jordan Ayew and Ross McCormack, he has tons of players to support Kodjia. In Nathan Baker and James Chester, Bruce has a top central defensive pair.
But what he doesn’t have is a wealth of options in the midfield. I talked earlier in the season about the fundamental issue in Villa’s squad — that Roberto Di Matteo was forced to choose between a winning formation and a winning side. The collective talent of the attacking players meant you wanted four of them in the starting XI, but the matches often called out for three in the centre of the park. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, particularly well balanced.
Just look at the way Villa had to close the Boxing Day win over Burton. With Gary Gardner off hurt, and Mile Jedinak subbed, a pair of non-central midfielders occupied the positions while the Claret and Blues tried to see off a 2-1 win.
Despite those squad problems, however, Bruce has found a way to lead Villa to 24 points from 12 matches, a remarkable haul that has his still-flawed side squarely back in the promotion push as the second half of the season gets underway Thursday — just in time for the January transfer window.
If Villa are active in filling their key gaps — central midfield, right back, goalkeeper? — there’s no reason they can’t keep up the pace they’ve set thus far under Bruce. And if they do that, they’ll amass another 46 points, bringing the season total to 80.
Going back to 1988-89, when the second tier completed its move from 22 to 24 teams, no side has missed out on the play-offs in an 80-point season. Some have even won automatic promotion, which… let’s just say won’t happen this year.
In his two months at Villa Park, Bruce got a flawed squad right to where it needed to be for the four-month promotion battle ahead. In a world where results are paramount, I’ll take that any day — no matter how we got there.