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Villa only have themselves to blame for exiting the top-two race

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Winning automatic promotion is difficult and I’ll never fault a manager for not getting it done. But I will fault Steve Bruce for the manner in which it hasn’t been done, which on Saturday was an incredibly frustrating slap in the face to Villa’s travelling support.

Derby County v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
DERBY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 16: Steve Bruce manager of Aston Villa looks on during the Sky Bet Championship match between Derby County and Aston Villa at iPro Stadium on December 16, 2017 in Derby, England.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

You know, at least we had 15 hours of hope between full-time from Wolves’ win at Cardiff City and kick-off of Villa opting not to show up and give it a go at Carrow Road. For some reason, we talked ourselves into second still being a possibility, but it was clear very few players in the squad thought it was.

Winning automatic promotion in this division is difficult, and it should be never be expected as a right. That’s why I find it particularly hard to fault Steve Bruce too much for simply missing out on the top two — there are four really good teams this season in the Championship, and only two of them can finish top-two. Fair play to Wolves and either Cardiff or Fulham, who’ll snag those two automatic promotion spots.

There is often a level of luck required to go up in this division, and recent clubs help prove this case — in each of the last four seasons, a club has won at least 85 points during the regular season and failed to go up. Brighton & Hove Albion were the most excruciating of those, winning 89 points in 2016 before losing in the play-off semi-final, but Reading in 2017, Middlesbrough in 2015 and Derby in 2014 each won 85 points, but didn’t go up.

That Middlesbrough squad is a decent parallel to this year’s Villa team, I think. The Claret and Blues are unlikely to get to that 85-point target, but they should finish fourth with at least 80, the same position in the table that Boro did. That year, there were four top-tier teams — Bournemouth and Watford came first and second, then Norwich finished third (and eventually won the play-off). One of that group was always going to miss out on promotion, and it happened to be Boro.

This didn’t mean that Aitor Karanka did a bad job at the Riverside that year, but things just didn’t break right for them; they lost a couple of key games down the stretch and that was that.

Ostensibly, Steve Bruce has steered Villa to a successful season. No club should ever scoff at being in the table position Villa are in right now, sitting fourth with a decent gap back to seventh-placed Millwall, and a look around the Championship should show why. Middlesbrough, whose squad Transfermarkt values at a similar amount to Villa’s, have been a fringe play-off side all year; they sit sixth and will have to sweat out the final five matches. Neither Hull City nor Sheffield Wednesday, who each have good squads, have been anywhere near contention this year — they’ve spent a lot of time looking over their shoulders, concerned about relegation. Leeds United have a good squad, too, and started bright, but their season has completely tanked.

Not being one of those teams is a success, there’s no doubt about it, and that Villa ought to have a chance to play 270 minutes of football for promotion is a positive.

And I’m not sure I even agree with the notion that Villa are one of the two most-talented teams in this division — I think Wolves are absolutely more talented than us, and I think Fulham are, too; Transfermarkt has the Cottagers’ squad valued at nearly £8 million more, though having a dude valued at £21.8 million (Ryan Sessegnon) certainly helps swing that. In fact, I think Sessegnon exposes this Villa squad’s biggest hole: that it doesn’t have anyone at an elite talent level. Villa have a lot of extremely good players and might be deeper than any other team in this league, but I also don’t think they have the best player in the division at any position, perhaps save goalkeeper, where Sam Johnstone can make an argument. Robert Snodgrass and Albert Adomah are extremely good wingers. There are also other guys I’d rather have than them. Ditto for Jack Grealish in attacking midfield or James Chester at centre back.

This all sets the scene for me to make the argument that everyone should chill out right now and stop throwing so much criticism Steve Bruce’s way. But I won’t make that case right now.

You see, the argument that missing out on automatic promotion is fine comes from the place that you can do a million things right in this division and still not get out of it. This will be true for either Cardiff or Fulham, at least for a few weeks until the end of the play-offs. If I felt like the breaks just didn’t go Villa’s way, I’d be sitting here defending Bruce.

But I won’t, because it’s the manner in which Villa are missing out on promotion that’s maddening and troubling. Villa haven’t been down on their luck this season — in fact, I think you could argue the opposite given how many matches individual talent has saved us in — so that defence is out.

The issue with Villa’s season is the sheer quantity of times they’ve completely failed to show up for a match. I get it happening a handful of times, as you don’t always have your best, but Villa have been shockingly poor far too many times. They did it on a couple occasions back in August, digging themselves an early hole in the table with awful performances away to Cardiff and Reading. After they went on a great run, winning 28 points from 12 matches to move into the promotion race, they fell apart again; Millwall home and Brentford away were completely awful performances in December, and I’ll include the Sheffield United collapse in that list as well.

And adding to it all, when the lights have been brightest this last month, Villa have completely fallen apart — first at home to QPR, then away to Bolton, Hull and Norwich. Toss in the 0-0 draw with Brentford in September (in which Villa were lucky to get a point), and that’s 10 times this season in 41 matches that I feel like Villa haven’t really come ready to play, haven’t looked engaged, haven’t looked like they want to go out on the front foot and win the match.

Too many times this year, I’ve felt like Steve Bruce has expressed these sentiments in a post-match presser:

  • “It was poor, really poor. My reaction, as it always is when we play like that, is disappointment.”
  • “I didn’t think we did enough from the first whistle to the last and got what we deserved.”
  • “I didn’t think there was any zip to us at all from the first whistle.”

If Villa went away to Norwich yesterday and lost 2-1, with the Canaries simply playing really well to steal a result, you shrug your shoulders and move on, accept that your opponent was better on the day, and that happens sometimes. It’s hard, however, to accept a result where, in the biggest match of your season, your club didn’t have any “zip” to it.

There is one reason that Aston Villa are no longer competing for automatic promotion, and that’s Aston Villa. They’ve shrunk on the biggest stage of this season and played their way out of a chance to go up without fuss.

That, for me, is the big disappointment.