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xV: I’m getting really annoyed with Steve Bruce

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Aston Villa’s manager has the club sitting sixth despite injury concerns, but it’s really hard to argue that he’s getting the most out of this team right now.

Derby County v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
Background: DERBY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 16: Steve Bruce manager of Aston Villa looks on 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?

Villa drew with Sheffield United despite going 2-0 up inside of 10 minutes Saturday, and I’m really starting to get frustrated with Steve Bruce.

A quick word about blowing a 2-0 lead before the half-hour mark

That was awful to watch. It’s almost like selling a solid centre back in Nathan Baker was a bad idea when you only had three centre backs at the club you trusted, two of which didn’t play a full season last year. Seems like keeping Baker around would’ve been really neat, so we could’ve avoided playing a midfielder at centre back whose poor defending cost Villa the match.

Steve Bruce hasn’t been dealt a good hand with the club’s injuries, but it’s really damn hard to feel bad for the guy. Instead of keeping Baker around, or actually trying to get something out of Tommy Elphick, he willfully sticks a midfielder at centre back. Instead of promoting Rushian Hepburn-Murphy from the youth squad or starting Scott Hogan at Derby County, he willfully plays no striker at all as Villa produced a dire offensive display. This is just bad management.

Steve Bruce’s attacking subs were awful

I don’t think Aston Villa were actually quite as bad as most others seem to. I really did think there was a good bit of strong attacking play during the middle portion of the game, and the stats support that view — between the 32nd and 71st minutes, Villa outshot Blades 10-4, gaining pretty solid control of the match. The Claret and Blues were on top, and if anyone was going to score, it seemed much more likely to be Villa.

So naturally, with the run of play in his side’s favour, Steve Bruce made two substitutions to radically change how his side attacked. He pulled Keinan Davis and Ahmed Elmohamady (who’d since shifted up to the wing) to bring on Gabby Agbonlahor and Scott Hogan. Villa failed to record a shot the remainder of the match.

Davis is one type of striker, and Hogan is, uh, a different one. Elmohamady is actually a passable winger, while Gabby is, well, not. In the 72 minutes before Agbonlahor came on, Villa’s right wingers recorded 48 touches — in the 18 minutes (plus added time) he played, Agbonlahor only managed nine. There are a lot of problems with Gabby playing on the wing for Villa, but two are most important: he’s rarely on the ball, and he rarely actually plays the position he’s supposed to. When Agbonlahor came on, Adomah switched over to the right wing — but Gabby had as many touches on the right side as he did on the left.

And even if you ignore who Bruce subbed on to do what, making wholesale changes to your attack when you’re the better side is completely asinine. Whether or not Villa would have won the match if Elmohamady and Davis stayed on the pitch is one thing, but Bruce’s decisions cost them the chance.

Albert Adomah papered over Villa’s cracks

It’s becoming clearer and clearer every week that Steve Bruce has no actual idea how to set Villa up to score goals. Keinan Davis, while a bit of a revelation, isn’t a great goalscorer at this point in his career. Both Robert Snodgrass and Jack Grealish are better utilized as playmakers, not goal scorers. Conor Hourihane is most often deployed as a box-to-box midfielder for some reason.

All those things, as well as an injury problem at left wing, has led to Albert Adomah being Villa’s greatest goalscoring threat. I’d argued for Adomah to play on the left before and, broadly, think he has a lot to offer at that position. But Adomah was never going to keep up the ridiculous goalscoring run he had going a month ago, when he’d scored 10 goals on 14 shots on target. That’s absurd. I’ve spent enough words this year explaining why Ipswich Town are worse than their table position would suggest, because they spend the start of the season scoring at that type of rate. It would be contradictory to act like Adomah would continue at that rate.

I still think Adomah will bag Villa four or six open-play goals the rest of the season, but he can’t be the only one banging in the goals. And unfortunately, he still kind of is.

Villa could really use a striker right now, which is why it’s awesome that two guys the club’s spent £27 million on aren’t scoring goals for Villa

Ross McCormack, who cost Villa £12 million, has scored three goals for the club. He is now injured after a loan spell at Melbourne City.

Scott Hogan, who cost Villa £15 million, has scored one league goal for the club. He now sits on the bench for 70 or 75 minutes every week, then gets subbed on when Steve Bruce runs out of actual ideas and just decides he’s going to bring on a quick centre forward and pretend there’s still a target man up top.

Isn’t that just lovely. Next time Bruce tells you he has no money to spend, remind him he spent £15 million on a striker he’s ruined by never trying to properly use him.

Villa are not winning automatic promotion

To get to 90 points, which may or may not even be enough this year, Villa need 52 points from their final 23 matches. That means going 15-7-1, 16-5-2 or 17-3-3. It ain’t happening. This team is fighting for a play-off spot, and the emphasis should be on “fighting” right now.

Maybe I’m being a little too pessimistic

Like, Steve Bruce hasn’t done an awful job here — Aston Villa have played Jonathan Kodjia eight times this season and sit in a play-off spot at Christmas. That’s nice and probably something we shouldn’t lose sight of, no matter how difficult Villa are to watch at times. This is better than last season, which is at least a start.

But at the same point in time, it’s the same stuff, just at a slightly different tier. Instead of Villa’s “here we go again” moments pushing the club closer to relegation, the “here we go again” moments push the club farther away from a promotion that the club really, really need to find a way to make happen this year. The Financial Fair Play world will not be kind to a Villa team in the Championship next year. Players will likely be sold to remain complaint. Failure to win promotion could set the club back three or four years.

So much for trying to be a little less pessimistic…