Steve Bruce’s mandate at Aston Villa is extremely straightforward: win promotion. That promotion was expected to come as soon as possible, and while last year’s failures can be forgiven in the context of Roberto di Matteo’s slow start to the season, a failure this season would much more difficult to justify. Bruce has had money to spend and time to figure out how to maximize one of the most talented squads, at least on paper, in the Championship. Villa’s season so far has been turbulent - a strong start saw Villa firmly in the playoff places with somewhat reasonable hopes of making a late push for automatic promotion, but a recent run of horrid performances and results has made talk of automatic promotion seem ludicrous. Villa currently sit in 8th place with 38 points, already 9 points and 6 places behind Bristol City and Cardiff City, who sit in 2nd and 3rd positions with 47 points. Being just three points away from 6th place, writing off this season as a failure already is ridiculous. However, if Villa’s new goal for the season is strictly to ensure a place in the playoffs and the slim shot at promotion that comes with a playoff berth, that shift should also bring an entirely new philosophy and outlook for the rest of the season.
After a frustrating defeat on Boxing Day against Brentford extended Villa’s winless run to 5 matches, many fans have been calling for Steve Bruce’s head. So far this season, Bruce has relied heavily on the goals of Albert Adomah and the defensive solidity of James Chester and John Terry to scrape out results, but as Adomah’s goal scoring pace inevitably slowed and Villa’s defense fell victim to injury, Bruce’s model has fallen apart. Whether Bruce will be able to right his ship in time to reinvigorate the squad for a playoff run remains to be seen, but Villa’s exit from the playoff positions should signal to owner Tony Xia that a managerial change may be in the club’s best interest.
If Villa would have been competing for an automatic bid or comfortably in the playoff places, a change in leadership would represent an unnecessary risk to Villa’s immediate promotion hopes. Confidence and stability, benefits usually attributable to longer tenures of leadership, would potentially be lost in the name of a more energetic manager. With Villa outside the playoff places, that risk becomes almost irrelevant: there is no risk to threatening the confidence or stability of players when the status quo means a failing Villa’s singular mandate for this season. If, after a few weeks, Villa still seem rudderless and outside the playoff places, a managerial change could be a shrewd gamble to take advantage of the salvageable position that Villa’s good first few weeks of the season made possible.
An additional argument in favor of making a change if the current situation continues is that currently, Villa’s best hope seems to be sneaking into the playoffs and relying on a miracle against a trio of extremely competent Championship sides. So far this season, Bruce has been successful in dispatching the league’s mediocre and average sides, but has showed little ability to effectively challenge the league’s best sides. Villa’s level of play against the top 6 would indicate that even if a playoff place is secured, Villa’s chances of winning said playoff are extremely low. A new manager could instill a new confidence in Villa’s talented squad to challenge the division’s best sides, a confidence that currently does not appear to exist in Bruce’s Aston Villa.
All of this is subject to speculation and still a bit premature, as Bruce should probably be afforded a few more weeks before a final decision is made. As long as Villa remain within striking distance of 6th place, bringing in a new manager who energizes the team and wins promotion is still possible, and is not an urgent proposition. As such, there is limited downside to allowing Bruce one last opportunity to inspire his side to challenge the league’s better teams. However, there is no question that there should be a list of potential replacements already prepared should Bruce be unable to substantially improve Villa’s current level of play.