This week Box to Box returns for a bit of a refresher from Steve Bruce’s pre-match press conference and analysis from the match on Saturday. Moving forward, this should be our regular format moving through the season, with pre-match conferences being tied to what happened on the pitch in the following game. The hope is to publish each Monday morning, but with matches this might change a bit.
The goal is that this will help Villa fans see what was said about the game, and then to see what actually happened on the pitch. When Bruce does not talk about tactics all that much, most of these stories are more extended narratives around transfers, players, and ownership. All of which seems to be on point with main talking points right now from the club.
Starting right from the top again with the new owners, Bruce seems to take every chance to compliment and thank the new stability. A few ways to take this, either he is praising his bosses, as most of us have taken to at times, or, on the other hand, the situation this summer was much worse than was even reported. It seems that Villa was not only in real financial trouble but struggling with the primary management of contracts and other staffing roles. The more Bruce talks, the more Villa fans should be aware of how much happened behind the scenes this summer. Bruce does seem to authentically like these new owners, but even with the turmoil this year never stepped out of line either.
At the same time, the primary line that stood out from Bruce was that “walls can be falling...you put two or three results together, and it’s another story.” The early success has been key to shifting the narrative, but also provides insight into what the results on the pitch mean outside of the fans as well. The other worry here, to some extent, is that when the first question at pressers to date has been on the ownership, or Bruce has pivoted there on general opening questions means there is still something at play. Villa fans will be hoping that by the heart of the season the ownership commentary has died down. Them more results on the pitch are coming in the less the ownership seems to have to worry about.
According to a line at the presser, before the Ipswich result, Villa had posted its best start to a campaign in 60 years. When pressed on this Bruce made a quick pivot to talking about how all teams will struggle at points, and that “every team has a bad run.” How quickly he wanted to add that context was interesting, as before even praising the results directly he was hedging a bit. At the same time, he did comment that it took the team a bit of time last season to find the form that they have now. So while Bruce is cautious, as he should be, there seems to be a real optimism around the club. Knowing how the result went on Saturday, there might be a bit less joy today, but still appears that the club can keep this early run going. Even then, a draw is still a point, and the Villa have not dropped a game this season yet.
Still, Bruce did comment that the club still needs four or five more signings to be where they want to be for this season. The concern of the fan base is that adding more players, while good if they add quality the club does not have, might also disrupt this current momentum around the club. For example, it would be different to bring back a Robert Snodgrass as opposed to a player who will be new to the club.
The other think to keep in mind, while this was also not reported in the presser, there is a question on whether the rumors of Bruce leaving, but ultimately staying, might have something to do with the current support he has talked about in the club. A lack of new signings means that the current team is much the same that finished last year, and therefore might be best set to continue as constructed. Lots of moving parts, but it looks like Villa will be in the rumor mill for another few weeks at least.
The other comment that stood out from Bruce focused on the youth players. When pushed on the Yeovil Town match, Bruce commented that the young players found it “tough to play in the real world.” This line can be taken a few ways. The first is that the play of the youth players show that the club needs to add a bit more before the window closes, which would be consistent with his other comments on transfers. If the club cannot count on what it currently has to play well versus Yeovil, what happens with Stoke or West Brom come to Villa Park? At the same time, the other side to the comment in that in reality so how few youth players played in that game. In the starting XI, only Doyle-Hayes and Hepburn-Murphy were true “youth” players. Andre Green seems to have been promoted to the senior squad, and even Moriera is not the same as the former two. Therefore was it these players who held the team back, or a team not gelling with new players? Both seem plausible.
This was, in fact, a bit concerning for a fanbase that has been waiting for this generation of talent to take over the team. Sadly, not much has worked out so far, and while there is plenty of time yet, this is the type of match that youth players should be able to make their mark and push their way into the senior team. If Bruce is not as high on these players, or their performances did not match up to his expectations, this might be another year of players out on loan if they might not fit. Take for example Hepburn-Murphy, who has “high expectations on him” according to Bruce. At the same time, he does not fit into the system that was employed over that game, with little to no service getting to the short striker.
The hope is that these players do in fact make their impact this season, but this might also be a Bruce trick to put pressure on ownership to add a few pieces yet this loan window.
Signings and movement will be a crucial talking point until the end of the loan transfer window on the 31st, and there are still plenty of rumors that are coming out of Villa Park. First, Bruce in his presser did reaffirm that he thinks two or three more signings are on their way, or at least, the transfer is in the works. While not the four or five he mentioned earlier, undoubtedly there will be some additions in the next two weeks.
When asked on positions he highlighted how “weak” the club is in wide areas, and that currently the club only has one fit striker in Jonathan Kodija. With Hogan not even kicking a ball yet, and the other limits up front, this seems to the most likely area that gets strengthened. And again, for Villa, this does mean that Bruce thinks his back four is fine, and perhaps, even Jedinak to keep starting? At the same time, it does seem that Bruce rates Kodija, but would not commit to not adding another striker to push him for time.
Finally, Bruce also let out that one of the reasons there has been no more transfer action to date has been the lack of a CEO with Villa. Once that position is filled there is someone who can work out contracts and other necessary pieces to get someone else in. It does seem weird to say the least that this might be one of the holding factors but also connects well to the fact that this team cannot move on from ownership conversations. The lack of a CEO is also holding back on planned talks with Jack Grealish on an extension, but that does seem to be in the works.
New Era at Ipswich
Knowing the result from the Ipswich match-up, the comments made by Bruce before the game are a bit interesting in predicting what might happen His first comment was that Ipswich has “been a bit unfortunate” this season, showing that he thinks the club has real quality. At the same time, the unfortunate results were a 1-0 loss to Rotherham and a loss to Exeter City in the Cup. The opening day draw might have been a bit of luck, to be honest, with a late goal to draw with Blackburn. Bruce did not go into where he through the bad luck played out but truly thought that they were a better club than they have played as so far. The other comment from Bruce was that the club spent this summer mostly adding lower league talent in the window, and therefore have the fight but not the cohesion yet. He did not seem all that impressed with this “new era” but, as always, was firm in his belief that they would be a good opponent. Finally, Bruce talked up Ipswich looking to Villa as a “scalp” for a younger team with the drive. The rest of history they might say.
While the disappointing game this past week can be tied to a variety of factors, it does seem that Bruce was right to talk up the ability for Ipswich to rebound in this match against a bigger club. Even after losing a man with the red card, Ipswich held their own and fought to the final whistle. Perhaps this was less a lousy Villa performance, but a good Ipswich match? That seems to be what Bruce would have said before the game. The other takeaway from these comments is just how much Bruce misses players like John Terry who he views as league veterans, as opposed to the lower league players. Not that he is diminutive, but instead, that he believes a good team is built around veterans as opposed to “youth energy.”