Since drawing 1-1 with Burton Albion and effectively falling out of the playoff race, Aston Villa have lost three of four — the lone salvation a key 1-0 derby win over Birmingham City, a match where the Claret and Blues didn’t look particularly great from a football standpoint in the first place.
The 3-1 losses to Fulham and Reading? Poor. The 1-0 this weekend against Blackburn? Dire.
But we have more things to worry about than how Villa are, largely meaninglessly, closing out the season.
Yes, the performances have been miserable and subpar, especially for a club like Villa with the players Bruce has at his disposal. But Villa will also have spent the last five matches of the season with nothing to play for, going up against five teams that each had something major left to pursue: Reading were looking to solidify its play-off position (they did), Fulham were looking to play their way into the play-off (they did), Birmingham and Blackburn were each fighting to avoid relegation (and still are), while Brighton & Hove Albion will have the Championship crown at stake during Sunday’s season finale.
No matter how talented you are — and let’s not act like Villa are head-and-shoulders better than anyone they’ve lost to recently, perhaps sans Blackburn — it’s difficult to outplay a side late with its season on the line.
And I say all of this as someone who’s been a critic of Bruce, largely, over this entire season — his ability to do this job shouldn’t be judged on what his squad, with at least half a mind on the forthcoming summer, is doing against desperate teams. Just look at what Tim Sherwood pulled off at Villa down the stretch in 2015; a 1-0 win at Champions League-chasing Spurs, then 3-2 and 1-0 victories over mid-table Everton and West Ham United sides to secure Premier League status. Or how about Huddersfield Town this year, a play-off side that lost to 10-man Blues over the weekend?
Football, and especially at this level, is a sport where weird results happen, especially when one team has significantly more at stake. And quite frankly, Villa probably should be losing matches like the Fulham and Reading ones — if we’re all to agree this team is short of being one of the six best in the league, then losses to clubs finishing in the promotion play-off slots should be expected.
Again, it doesn’t excuse the performances, which have been nothing short of miserable. But, of the 35 Championship matches Bruce will manage this year, 30 of them will have been played with something on the line. Judge Bruce poorly for the run of form in January and early February that turned a season that could’ve ended in the play-offs into one that could have ended near the bottom three. Judge him positively for the run of form that followed, where Villa won seven of eight, rekindling extremely faint play-off dreams.
But please, don’t get caught up in a group of matches that, the derby aside, don’t really matter.