Twenty-four months ago, Aston Villa brought Steve Bruce to the club after a sputtering start from his predecessor, Roberto Di Matteo. Through Bruce’s time, there have been some ups and some downs, some great moments and some frustrating ones.
Yet at the end of the day, if you look at the club now, what did Steve Bruce really change? The mentality of the club is probably in a better spot, but it’s not winning points. Jack Grealish has developed, but will also probably leave sooner rather than later.
I’m looking at four categories, comparing where Villa were in 2016 to where they are in 2018 — and at the end of the day, I’ll conclude that Steve Bruce really isn’t leaving this club in any better position than he found it.
When Villa sacked Di Matteo two years ago, the club were sat 19th in the table. Today they sit 13th, which is admittedly a little better.
Yet the story largely remains the same — like they were under Di Matteo, Bruce’s 2018/19 Villa squad has been a hyper-talented team whose results are lagging well behind the level of that talent. Di Matteo won just one of 11 Championship matches, but Bruce won just once in his last nine league outings, so there’s not much dissimilar there (incidentally, both managers’ lone win in those spells came at home against Rotherham United).
If you know me, though, you know that I’ll fight you that Di Matteo should’ve never been sacked so soon. That’s mostly because of the how behind Villa dropping points, more than that they dropped points. RDM’s Villa teams dropped points in large part due to some truly fluky endings to games. You had Pierluigi Gollini’s late goalkeeping errors that cost Villa three points, plus that really odd draw with Nottingham Forest where Villa outshot their opponents by, like, 25 attempts.
On the contrast, the how behind Bruce’s results this season are radically different — in fact, one could make the case that through the sheer volume of late bail-out goals, 13th place flatters Bruce on the whole.
Regardless, though, Steve Bruce inherited a Villa team that was lagging well behind expectations, and he leaves a Villa team in the same position.
If there was truly one defining characteristic of Roberto Di Matteo’s Aston Villa team, it was how poor the midfield was. Villa had some of the best attackers in the league — Jonathan Kodjia was joined by Jordan Ayew, Rudy Gestede, Jack Grealish and Ross McCormack — and an overall pretty solid defence, headlined by James Chester. Yet the midfield lagged so far behind the rest of the team, with guys like Leandro Bacuna and Gary Gardner starting out of necessity, not because they were top-tier players. Di Matteo nearly ignored the midfield when building his Villa team, and ultimately, it’s what cost him the job.
Fast forward two years and the Villa midfield’s really good now, with a wealth of options any Championship club would be jealous to have. That two of Birkir Bjarnason, Conor Hourihane and Glenn Whelan are about guaranteed to start from the bench is a remarkable situation, let alone what happens when you include Henri Lansbury in that equation. The attack is still pretty strong, too, with plenty of talent.
The defence, though … it’s brutal. Villa’s defence is every bit as bad as Di Matteo’s midfield was, if not worse. You’ve got Mile Jedinak trying to play centre back, part of a unit where, at times, only one player is playing in his natural position. It’s awful, and just like how the lack of a midfield cost RDM his job, the lack of solid defending has cost Steve his.
It’s entirely Steve’s fault, though. He didn’t have to sell Nathan Baker last summer so he could bring in John Terry and Robert Snodgrass, he chose to do so. The entire capitulation of the defence can, ultimately, be traced back to there. While Baker wasn’t the best centre back in the league, he had a good pairing with Chester that was likely going to continue to be one of the better ones in the league. Instead, Villa sold their still-young defender to bring in a guy on the cusp of retirement. They still haven’t replaced him.
Style of play
When Steve Bruce was hired, I was happy. I thought Di Matteo had instilled a good style of play at the club, but Villa were still pretty susceptible to melting down late in matches. I figured Bruce would come in and solidify the squad in those late-match moments to see out wins, but wouldn’t change a style that was largely working.
Two years later, Villa never developed an identity under Bruce — in fact, I’d argue they have less of one now than they did in October 2016 — and that’s an abject failure on his part.
Outlook for the future
There are two or three distinct ways to look at this, and for the most part, very little has changed.
As far as youth players go, very little seems to have changed. Guys like André Green and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy remain “prospects,” not contributors. The main bright spot for building toward the future has been Jack Grealish, and even then, his future increasingly looks like it’s going to happen away from Villa Park.
You could also look at it as the level to which the current squad is developed to compete for a long period of time and, well, it isn’t. Through wasteful spending in his first winter on the job, Bruce has managed to make Villa incredibly over-reliant on loan players. There’s all of one recognized senior centre back at the club. Neil Taylor is still the only true left back, and aside from Jonathan Kodjia, there’s no currently integrated forwards that you’d expect to be playing for the club at a high level for two years.
And then there’s that whole spending thing, which could come crashing down on Villa at any moment. Unless they give up their figure, Jack Grealish, this winter, the club are going to bust Financial Fair Play rules by a very significant sum. If Villa are hit with a transfer embargo and/or points deduction next season, it’s going to make their ability to move forward as a club that much more difficult, and ultimately, that falls on Bruce’s shoulders.
On the whole…
…Villa look a lot like the club Steve Bruce inherited two years ago. Massively underperforming and an incredibly flawed squad are the two big keys, and Bruce made little or no progress in developing a style of play or building for the future. It’s best for all involved that he’s finally gone.