Aston Villa are still, somehow, an embarrassment.
Villa have only won 11 points away from home all season — only four teams have performed worse — and no team has scored fewer away goals than Villa, who’ve netted just eight times in 16 matches. It isn’t like these marks are improving under Steve Bruce, either; Villa have gone 2-2-6 in his 10 away matches, and three of those four results came in the first three matches of his tenure. Since the “new manager” bounce wore off with the loss at Leeds United, Villa have won just three points in seven matches on the road.
Part of the issue is, well, that Bruce’s Villa side has no real identity. What, exactly, is the team supposed to be good at? As 2017 started, we looked and saw a Villa team that, while it wasn’t playing well overall, was grinding out results. Reading and Fulham were scrappy wins, so were Wigan, QPR and Burton Albion. You could put aside the lack of entertainment and dearth of dominant performances because, well, the club was moving up the table.
All in all, the quality of football has been largely the same in January and February, but instead of getting late goals to scrape out a point or two, Villa are finally being punished for their poor play. Since the new year, the Claret and Blues have won one point from five matches — plus they recorded an FA Cup exit at Spurs — which is somehow, I think, less than ideal.
Now, for a quick aside, I’ll forgive Bruce for the miserable football that’s been on display while “renovations” were in order. Roberto Di Matteo left behind a team with no midfield, which was ultimately the cause of the reason why he got sacked.
But under Di Matteo, at least Villa were entertaining — and often playing better than their opponents. They started the season with 12 shots against Sheffield Wednesday, 16 against Rotherham United and 18 against Huddersfield Town; then there was the Nottingham Forest match, where Villa outshot their opponents 26-3 and managed to draw. Ultimately, Villa’s low shots mark under Di Matteo was nine in a match. The 2-0 defeat at Preston aside, Villa were never really played off the park.
Since Bruce took over, though, it’s been a lot more putrid. Boring draws with Wolves and Blues. Embarrassingly bad losses to Norwich, Wolves and Brentford. Then yesterday’s poor loss at Forest.
It’s not better. It’s worse.
I mean, yes, the points haul has been a little better. Di Matteo earned 10 points in his 11 matches, Bruce 26 in his 18. But think about how Di Matteo dropped some of those points — a pair of bizarre Gollini errors lost three points, then the stupid Forest match — against how Bruce has won some of them at the death after lackluster performances, and suddenly the points performances look a little different.
Under Di Matteo, Villa were a good side that was flawed to the point where the points haul wasn’t matching the performances. Under Bruce, make no mistake, Villa are getting no less than they deserver — if not less.
Again, I’m willing to forgive Bruce for his first four months on the job if he’s able to turn this around. For the majority of his tenure, he hasn’t been dealing with his players, nor has he had a particularly full squad at his disposal.
Now, though, that’s changed. He’s been well-backed in the transfer window, has made his moves — like bringing in Sam Johnstone, whose poor performances are costing him points — and has a squad that’s as talented as it is deep. Make no mistake: Villa have one of the most talented sides in this division, and there’s no way you can argue against that with a sane face.
Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane have been two of the league’s best midfielders this year. The same goes for Scott Hogan up front, who joins Jonathan Kodjia. Birkir Bjarnason played in the Champions League group stage this past autumn.
The excuses for Villa’s poor play are gone. The club aren’t winning promotion, nor are they getting relegated, so the remaining 19 matches this season are about evaluation and building for 2017-18. That means we need to see what the new guys offer, how Rushian Hepburn-Murphy can integrate himself into the club’s plans, whether or not Jack Grealish can grow up a bit and become a consistent performer. It’s about whether or not Kodjia and Hogan can play together up front, if there’s a better centre-back pairing, and how the midfield should optimally be setup heading into next season.
And it’s also 19 matches for Bruce to prove he deserves to be part of the club’s future.