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Steve Bruce’s decisions torpedo Aston Villa’s automatic promotion hopes

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A series of tactical mistakes have doomed Villa’s automatic promotion push - and perhaps more

Hull City v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
Steve Bruce has overseen a rough few weeks at Villa
Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images

Steve Bruce. Promotion specialist. Man manager. Tactically futile.

Tony Xia entrusted to Bruce his most precious public asset - his global marketing platform for Recon’s world domination and perhaps his football financial well being. And sometime after March 10, 2018 - the English football mainstay misplaced his experience, forgetting basic concepts associated with managing a football club and, in the span of a quick but agonizing month, torpedoed Villa’s shot at automatic promotion back to the Premier League. Now, what once looked like a club ready to reclaim its place in the top league of English football clings desperately to riding its luck in the four-team crapshoot known as the English Championship Playoff. It didn’t have to be this way.

Villa spent the better part of the winter making up for lost time. Bruce struggled to find a suitable XI and set up that worked for the talent he himself acquired. Despite a wealth of options, players played out of position or not at all. His favorite Egyptian Ahmed Elmohamady featured too often in attacking roles and an old, leggy midfield centered on the former shell of Glenn Whelan. It was Bruce’s famous conservatism at its worst, culminating in a 2-1 loss at Brentford on Boxing Day. The pitchforks were out. Villa sat in 8th place, nine points from second and automatic promotion. Bruce brushed aside criticism pointing out Villa were only three points from the Playoffs. He set the bar low. And he was delivering.

Bruce, however, has built a respectable career out of seeing clubs through tough times. And Bruce drew on this experience throwing caution to the wind. Villa responded playing its best football in years. A 4-1 win over Wolverhampton brought automatic promotion back into the play, the past was forgotten and Villa were looking up both in terms of quality of play and place in the table. And then the QPR game.

Bruce’s failure to rotate an aging squad that just finished an emotional and draining derby game against a local and promotion rival defied belief. Did he see the bigger picture? Bruce handles a modern locker room very well, but surely, when in that locker room, he can see he has options other than what he rolled out that Tuesday night, at home, against a struggling lower mid-table side? Villa were routed 3-1 and doubt didn’t creep in - it burst through the door knocking it off the hinges and into pieces.

The poor form continues. Villa are now on a run of one win in five and Steve Bruce only has himself to blame. The players look disinterested just when they needed to bear down and get the season over the line. They’re mentally tired. And it’s not as if Villa have done this against tougher the upper mid-table sides they’ve already stuggled with this season.

Tactically, Bruce looks completely and utterly lost. He doesn’t have a Plan B after spending the first three months of the season without a Plan A. Honestly, other than rolling the ball out to in-form players, he’s done little on game-day to give the players much of a chance than what they’ve had on their own. To his credit, he has changed the culture of the squad and recruited Terry and Snodgrass to Villa Park. But given the platform from the players, he’s bottled it.

For now, it seems throwing on a bunch of strikers will suffice when chasing a game. Bruce will forget more football than I’ll ever know, but surely he must know how goals are scored? Throwing on four strikers to chase a goal or two doesn’t bode well for winning. Not only because it makes scoring goals harder, but without a midfield, it makes it easier for the opponents to score them. He’s been dismissive of a cohesive center midfield all season, jerking around Birkir Bjarnason (playing time) and Conor Hourihane (position). And while having Snodgrass hoof in crosses has yielded results, it’s not exactly a tough tactical adjustment for opposing sides to disrupt that kind of play. At times it just looks more hopeful than intentional to give Snoddy an extra head or two to aim at.

One of Bruce’s broader appeals is the manager’s reputation of getting clubs promoted to the Premier League. In 2001-2002 Bruce took over a midtable Birmingham City and got the Blues promoted via a penalty shootout in the Championship final playoff. Bruce took Birmingham City to automatic promotion in 2007 following City’s relegation the previous season. At Hull, Bruce first won the Tigers automatic promotion and then again, four years later, winning the Playoff Final. In all, Bruce has won promotion four times, twice automatically and twice in the Playoffs - once via penalties. Bruce has yet to fail in the Playoffs, so perhaps, this explains his perceived comfort with the entire format. But it also looks like a manager with a track record with yo-yo clubs, where, over the course of 14 years, is bound to take a half-way decent side up to the Premier Leauge here or there. It’s hard to tell if he’s a promotion specialist or a man that’s been given the opportunity enough.

It’s doubtful Bristol City, despite Lee Johnson’s claims, will catch Bruce’s Villa. Bruce still has time to revise his Villa legacy. He has a reputation for seeing things through even when the going gets tough, and that’s an admirable quality Villa needs after the garbage endured over the past six years. But on the face of recent results and overall expectations, Bruce’s legacy at Villa probably go down as “opportunities missed.”