Steve Bruce has endured a lot so far at Aston Villa. Winning streaks followed by losing streaks followed by winning streaks. Dismal spells and bright spots, goals galore and of course, goal droughts.
Through all of this, Bruce had managed to hold the benefit of the doubt for Villa fans. A bad spell would be blamed on a lot more, outside targeting his managerial nous, while he would happily take the plaudits shovelled his way en masse when Villa went on a spree of wins.
However, time is running out - and Bruce has enjoyed a lot of it at Villa. Two horrendous spells have engulfed his time at Villa so far, and with the sand running out of the egg timer, it is only going to be the fans who save Bruce if this carries on - and they are turning on him at record pace.
Bruce has enjoyed a fair shake of the stick at Aston Villa. To say he isn’t is false. Steve has been at Aston Villa for 61 games so far - which is more time than Roberto Di Matteo, Remi Garde, Gerard Houllier, Tim Sherwood and Alex McLeish - most of whom were dismissed following poor results (bar Garde and Houllier). With the amount of time, and cash, that Bruce has burnt up so far in charge of AVFC, it’s fair to say that we need to see some results - and fast. The manager is currently riding on the goodwill gained from a number of excellent winning runs, but that will erode quickly if Villa fall off the pace for the second Winter running.
Bruce deserves to be defended. To outright attack him is silly. Villa are in the best shape they have been for years, they do win games and they aren’t getting relegated. However, the reality of the situation is that Villa are better than their standing, and we do know for a fact that he is not utilising his players in a correct or efficient manner. We know this, because Tottenham fans, the England management, and Maurico Pochettino have deployed, and seen, Joshua Onomah succeed as part of a midfield pivot. The exact position he has not yet played for Aston Villa. We ourselves have seen Scott Hogan become locked out of games by his own team’s gameplan.
This, in essence, is Bruce’s biggest crime. He is not using his squad correctly, and he has helped damn Villa to the constraints of the Financial Fair Play system as a result. He did not need to buy Henri Lansbury, Scott Hogan and Birkir Bjarnason last season! That’s no slight at any of these players, but how often have they actually been used by Aston Villa? A saving of around £20 million would have been a gift for Villa this season, but here we are - in the hole that Steve Bruce has dug us into. A further worry is that ageing players are locked in to big time contracts. Not an issue Bruce has created, but one he has bolstered. Glenn Whelan and Ahmed Elmohamady have been injected into the team, but are the type of player that no team is going to buy from Aston Villa. They’ve been sold off from their clubs for a reason. Money is not a worry for Villa, just yet - but the squad’s makeup and dynamics are going to take some blows when characters, friends and team-mates are moved on sharpishly when Villa need cash.
A big shield for Bruce is his win percentage. He’s a record-breaker for Villa in that department, but it almost means naught. Villa aren’t winning the games that they actually need to win. They are towing the line by kicking Burton and others around, but phoning it in when Brentford and Wolves come to town. If Villa do succeed in securing a play-off positon, you get the feeling that it would be by ‘default’ rather than conquering teams in the manner of Johnson’s Bristol and Nuno’s Wolves.
But is there a way back for Bruce now that Villa’s loyal fanbase are turning on him? The answer?
Villa just need to win games. It’s that simple. Every single loss, or dropped point from here on out is going to damn them, and him. He needs to fight for his job and his career, so at this point, there’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t start to take risks with his setup. He has the talent to do some damage in this league, but they are being held back by strict instructions (which ironically have had no effect on the team’s poor discipline). Conor Hourihane is the best example of this - leashed to Glenn Whelan in a haphazard double pivot, he is unable to dictate games - due to Bruce’s unwillingness to leave gaps in the midfield. There’s a lot to be said for sitting deep and ruining teams on a counter, but Villa lack the pace and power to do this - what they do have, however, is the firepower and talent to play on the front foot and possess the ball well.
Bruce’s style of football is strange. There’s a bit of Klopp and Guardiola in there, but a cut-price version of both. The route one, direct approach at Villa fails as Keinan Davis and crew are quickly swamped, while Villa’s possession football relies on them kicking it sideways to each other. This ‘best of both’ approach is an abject failure in practice, and Bruce needs to commit to a single, solitary approach - with the Brentford game showing how well Villa can do with the ball at their feet. It’s time for Villa to hold onto the ball, frustrate teams and punish them with pure creativity - because lumping the ball downhill is not working, and neither is this horrible mockery of possession footy.
It’s time to turn this ship around, and if that fails, Bruce is done at Villa. It’s time to go back to the drawing board, enforce a philosophy and allow Villa’s talented players to run the show. If Bruce fails to take the leash off his side, he’s going to suffer, because there’s only one way back for him now.