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xV: It’s so hard to properly rate Steve Bruce’s job this season

On one hand, Steve Bruce has an injury-riddled Aston Villa side sitting fifth in the table with one match left before Christmas. On the other, he can’t use the expensive striker he bought last January, plays the Championship’s best attacking midfielder out of position, and can’t beat any of the division’s best teams.

Derby County v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
DERBY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 16: Steve Bruce manager of Aston Villa shows his frustration during the Sky Bet Championship match between Derby County and Aston Villa at iPro Stadium on December 16, 2017 in Derby, England.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a post-match column on the stats behind Villa’s results.

One of the reasons I really love looking at football through a mathematical lens is that it allows us to sidestep our conventional, results-based bias to take a look at how the match actually played out. Did it play out exactly how we saw? Which moments are emphasized?

Aston Villa lost away to Derby County on Saturday, 2-0, and oh no, the sky is falling again.

There’s a lot of things I want to talk about, so let’s get to them.

Steve Bruce doesn’t know how to use the players he bought

Steve Bruce reminds us somewhat regularly that he has little money to spend and, yes, he is right about that. He also has had money to spend during his time as Villa manager, though, signing six players on permanent deals last January. Neil Taylor has done a job, but other than that, Bruce either (a) missed entirely on or (b) can’t utilize the players he bought that winter. James Bree was always a developmental prospect, but the other guys Bruce signed were, at the time, three Championship Best XI contenders (Scott Hogan, Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury), plus a EURO 2016 quarterfinalist and Champions League player (Birkir Bjarnason).

We can sit here and have debates for days about these players, but I’m going to primarily discuss two: Hogan and Hourihane. Scott Hogan has not been great since arriving at Aston Villa — but you cannot argue Bruce has played to Hogan’s strengths. He’s the type of forward who needs tactics sculpted to get him the service he wants, but Villa refuse to do that. When presented with that opportunity Saturday, given Hogan was the most fit of the strikers, Bruce instead decided to play a 4-6-0.

Bruce’s tactical decisions with Hourihane have been even more puzzling, though. Remember back to August, when the Irishman hit a hat trick to lift Villa to a 4-1 win over Norwich City? Hourihane looked unstoppable that day, and he finally looked like the player Villa fans were expecting to get. But once Josh Onomah got embedded in the Villa side, Bruce moved Hourihane back from the No. 10 role (where he’s best) to the No. 8 role (where he struggles to offer much in attack). It’s the type of decision that raises the question of whether or not Bruce will ever get the maximum out of this team.

Villa need three points against Sheffield United

Last week, I broke out a path for Villa to get to 90 points and, presumably, second place. I talked about how they needed a 2-2-1 or better five-match run starting at Derby to truly be in with a chance. Well, that loss is already on the board, Blades are struggling, and it’s at home. This is a must-win if Villa are to claw their way properly back into the top-two race.

And it is also a very important result as we start to look behind us. At one point, Villa had a nice gap to seventh place — but that’s been closed to one, with Leeds United in seventh. Ipswich Town and Preston North End sit just two points back in eighth and ninth, too. Villa could very well kick off Saturday’s 5:30pm kickoff outside the top six, while a loss would almost certainly put them outside the play-off spots at Christmas.

Related: The most likely result for Villa’s season is a play-off berth

It’s what the table tells us, it’s what the underlying metrics tell us, and it’s what the bookies tell us. At Sky Bet, Villa’s odds of a top-two finish are 10/1, with making the play-off at evens and a finish outside the top six at 11/10.

More than just that, Villa need to make up a 10-point gap on Cardiff City, plus gain ground on Bristol City and Derby County to pass them and perform better than anyone behind them. If we treat 90 points as the required target, Villa will need to finish the season 16-5-3. You have to assume one or two fluky losses, and one or two losses where you get outplayed. In every other match, though, you need to at least be even with the opposition, and more often than not, you need to be significantly better. There’s no evidence that this team is capable of that.

And that’s not a horrible thing

It is hard to win in this division. Wolves have a very good team, built around a philosophy, and that’s why they’re going to win automatic promotion. If you want to make a complaint related to Wolves, it should be that this Villa team was built without an actual philosophy (more on that later, actually).

But for any other club in this division, a top-six spot when your two talismen from the previous season (Jonathan Kodjia and Mile Jedinak) have missed most of the year would be seen as a good result. Even though we all thought automatic promotion should be a strong possibility, I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing that Villa are in fifth place right now — just look at where talented sides like Middlesbrough (10th), Fulham (12th) and Sheffield Wednesday (15th) sit. A lot has not gone Villa’s way on the injury front, but this team still looks like a play-off side.

But can Steve Bruce win the play-off?

His track record says yes, with two Premier League promotions via that route on his CV. His time at Villa, however, raises doubts.

Aston Villa have failed to win a match this season against a side sitting in the top seven (0-2-3). It’s worth noting that Villa have had some really bad fixture luck in the first half of this season — all of those matches came away from home — but you’d expect a promotion-contending side to have done better. If the Claret and Blues could have nicked a win, and finished 1-2-2 in that run, the gap to second place could be as low as four points. Instead, it’s 10.

Ultimately, your opinion on Bruce should center around answering two questions:

  • Is winning the play-off random chance, or do certain teams have a better chance of winning it?
  • Are Bruce’s poor results this season against the best teams in the division a result of his ability as Villa manager or simply a string of bad luck?

Relying on individual skill doesn’t work against good teams

This is my biggest takeaway from the Derby match or the Wolves match: Villa are getting beat by these teams because they have plans, and Villa don’t.

I’ve talked before in xV about how simply letting your individual talent make match-winning plays is a fine tactic against the bottom end of the table and stand by that. It doesn’t work, however, when you face teams that are actually as talented as you and, well, actually have a plan. This tweet does a good job of summing it up:

Derby are a really good side with a lot of talent, but not a side that should be unbeatable if Villa attack with a plan. Maybe it’s disingenuous to Bruce, but it never feels like Villa really ever do have a plan these days. It’s been about relying on an Albert Adomah moment of brilliance, a set-piece goal, a Josh Onomah goal off a deflection, etc. this season. There’s always an extent to which talent needs to win you matches, but not as often as Villa are relying on it this season.

And that goes back to how Roberto Di Matteo, then Steve Bruce, built this side, by simply accumulating talent with no idea of how it was all going to fit together. The idea was that they’d eventually figure something out and, well, what Bruce has figured out (Albert Adomah and Keinan Davis) only exists because of injury-forced changes.

At what point is Steve Bruce managing for his job?

I think Villa are generally going to be fine and will generally continue to get results at a clip that should see them finish the season around the 80-point mark, in the play-off, with a chance to win promotion. As long as Villa stay on that track, any serious discussion of replacing Bruce should be tabled — if Villa made a managerial change at this point in the season, it’d be much more likely to send them down the table than all the way up to second.

But that whole line of thinking supposes that Villa don’t hit a run of poor form right now. If that happens, Bruce’s job would be in serious jeopardy, with Villa suddenly sitting mid-table, probably around five points astray of a play-off spot, with 20 matches to play.

The most likely scenario, of course, is that Villa play out these next few matches at something like 1-2-1, keeping them right in the discussion, if not in the top six, with a chance to win points during weaker fixtures ahead.

It is difficult to categorize the job Bruce has done

I would laugh if any other fanbase was discussing sacking a manager while the side was sitting in the top six — hell, I do it to Arsenal fans with Arsène Wenger all the time. On one hand, Bruce has stabilized Villa, then taken the club into a play-off spot and that’s been really good. On the other, Bruce has spent significant money on players he can’t get the best out of, plays guys out of position, and struggles to beat the best sides around him.

There are probably other managers out there that could do a better job with this team. There are also loads that would be worse. It’s whatever.