I don’t need to tell you that Villa’s performance against Brentford on Tuesday night was atrocious. You know that already. Especially if you were one of many Villa fans making the trip down to London.
There are plenty of reasons why Villa were absolutely caned and whilst Bruce isn’t truly to blame for the poor performances of Sam Johnstone and Villa’s defence at large, there’s a lot he has to answer for. Let’s take a look.
Firstly, it is quite un-nerving that Steve Bruce would line up a team to play in such an aggressive manner, away, in a hostile environment against a team that will have every reason to turn Villa over, thanks to the Scott Hogan transfer. It just makes no sense - and I’m a football amateur. A more conservative approach would have helped Aston Villa and maybe the addition of Leandro Bacuna into the midfield would have at least given Villa some bite.
Even though a cross was the route through which Brentford found their second goal, it was only because the charging Nico Yennaris was unmarked. Aston Villa tried to split the play far too wide and were punished twice by Lasse Vibe when they left huge gaps. Playing wide is great, it stretches the defense and allows you to spray the ball around and create options, but if Villa were to pack the midfield and play narrow, they’d force Brentford to cross the ball in. Crossing the ball into the box carries a low conversion rate, so I’d take that risk any day over a through ball splitting my defence.
Width is another issue for Villa. Although Alan Hutton and Jordan Amavi play to their ‘strengths’ when deployed as wing backs, this just puts far too much pressure on James Chester and Nathan Baker. Chester and Baker are fantastic central defenders, but Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini they are not. If you put them under pressure, they will crack. Villa’s defending was not measured, it was urgent and only through sheer dumb luck and the late arrival of Alan Hutton & Amavi did they clear the ball from their goalmouth. Defending is not a game of ‘dumb luck’ and Steve Bruce, as a defender, should know this. Villa’s defending needs to be far much more measured in the future.
In Birkir Bjarnason you’ll find the very definition of the metaphor ‘thrown to the wolves’. While the Icelandic midfielder was not torn asunder by a pack of drooling mountain hounds, he may as well have been. Villa’s own Viking started his first match in six weeks away at a hungry Brentford team and the poor bastard had no idea of what to do. The left-sided midfielder was deployed in a weird ‘free-role’ that saw him as a winger, striker, midfielder and defender all at once. His fitness was clearly lacking and Bruce’s gameplan, team selection and formation asked far too much of Bjarnason who had to make critical decisions constantly. As Villa found themselves under pressure, this led to him dropping deeper - effectively isolating Jonathan Kodjia. Ask yourself what you would have done in his shoes - would you stick to your role, or would you run back to assist your defense when they are under pressure? The answer should aways be number two unless you’re Marco Bielsa.
Regardless of your criticism of Ashley Westwood, Villa could have done with him on Tuesday. With Villa’s sale of Westwood and loan of Aaron Tshibola - they effectively lack both a deeper playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder. In their place, there are three midfielders who want to attack the box in Henri Lansbury, Hourihane and Bjarnason. These three want to score and make goals at all points and that could be seen most in Henri Lansbury who was deployed as a defensive midfielder. Lansbury lacks the mentality for this role and is always itching to burst forward and save his energy for attacks and while this is welcomed, it can’t happen if he’s the anchor of the side like he was against Brentford. What is even more unwelcome is his impotent aggression - and kicking out and committing needless fouls in his role doesn’t help. Villa needed a lot more from Lansbury on Tuesday and he failed to deliver. A lot of good will come from him, but not with how Steve Bruce is deploying him.
For whatever reason, Steve Bruce fielded a team away from home that consisted of one striker, two wingers, two attacking midfielders, one defensive midfielder, two wing backs and two centre backs. This is an incredibly aggressive formation to play and Villa were found seriously wanting when their attack was muted by Brentford. This formation regressed into a lopsided 4-4-2 when Villa fell apart, and a fall-apart was always on the cards when they set out this way and failed to deal with Brentford’s threats. Hourihane dropped deeper when Villa went two goals down and this should have been done from the start.
Chemistry was a big issue, but part of the reason one would assume that Villa’s new look midfield were deployed on Tuesday was to build that chemistry. It is possible that this didn’t have to happen all at once though.
What is most worrying about Tuesday night is the feeling that Villa didn’t treat Brentford with respect. Playing in such an aggressive manner in a away game isn’t always a good idea - not least when you’ve got three new crucial parts to a team. The main reason why I say this is because Villa did nothing to deter Brentford’s playmaker - Jota - from running Villa ragged. He was barely tackled, let alone marked, and this is simply not on. If a player poses a threat, Villa need to deal with the threat and they let Jota go wild. If they’d tried to contain him or curtail his abilities, Villa might not have capitulated so wildly.
Goals will come and this team will gel, but it was Sunday League for Bruce to do what he did on Tuesday and while I’ll concede that he will know more than I ever will about the game, it’s worrying that Villa failed to react to Brentford like a narcoleptic to his alarm clock. Steve Bruce deserves our time, our support and our faith, but also our criticism when it is deserved.
Villa’s team is lopsided, but there are definitely ways Villa can approach each match to try to find a win. A worrying aspect of Villa under Bruce is that they are literally dumbstruck by anything that happens in a match - no matter if they take the lead or go a goal down - nothing ever changes. That’s on the manager.