Steve Bruce has done a lot of experimenting in his short tenure thus far at the helm of Aston Villa. His experiments haven’t always worked out, and his Villa side has, as a result, been a streaky bunch. A long unbeaten streak to start his reign gave some fans playoff hopes, but a long winless run just a few weeks later prompted others to call for his head. Despite this, the very seeming illogical decisions that drew such ire from his fans not long ago may be the reason that Villa have put together three wins in a row and positivity has returned to Villa Park.
With this season’s promotion hopes all but gone and fears of relegation almost impossibly unlikely, the first priority for Steve Bruce in this season’s remaining games is to determine a clear idea of what players he needs and what roles they will fill for a promotion push next season. In the recent games, some of these questions have been answered. Firstly, the defensive pairing of Nathan Baker and James Chester does not need to be changed. Together, they are solid and work well as a unit. They provide the stability that any center defending pair should, and almost none of Villa’s failures this year fall at either of their feet. Chester and Baker do, however, need a better back-up in the event of injury. Tommy Elphick has looked nothing short of calamitous whenever he takes the field this season and always seems to jeopardize the good work of his teammates with a silly defensive error.
In the midfield, Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane are settling into their new home. Conor Hourihane was superb on Saturday against Rotherham, showcasing the attacking threat that makes him invaluable to any midfield. Together with Mile Jedinak, the three man combo of Jedinak-Lansbury-Hourihane has a little bit of everything.
Going forward, it is apparent that Jonathan Kodjia performs his best when playing through the middle. One of Steve Bruce’s worst mistakes has been forcing Kodjia out wide to make room for Gabby Agbonlahor or Scott Hogan as a lone striker - Kodjia’s return rate through the middle should discourage Bruce from making this mistake again. If Villa are able to keep hold of Kodjia this summer, he and Hogan could form a lethal partnership, but because they both excel through the middle, Bruce will have to find a way to optimize both of their abilities in harmony. Such a solution will be difficult without compromising the abilities of one of Villa’s two most valuable players, but hopefully Steve Bruce learned his lesson of playing Jonathan Kodjia as a right winger the hard way.
Overall, the last three games should have given Steve Bruce confidence in the core of his team going into next season: A defense built around the pairing of Nathan Baker and James Chester, a midfield based on the physicality and versatility of Mile Jedinak, Henri Lansbury, and Conor Hourihane, and an attack built around Jonathan Kodjia. With this backbone, Bruce has significant agency in outfitting the outsides of his side to more specific criterion, but such a core of players would make Villa’s lineup one of the best in the Championship on paper next season.