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Box to Box 5: “There will be a reaction, I’m convinced”

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We take a look back at Steve Bruce’s pre-match presser, with the Blackburn result in mind

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Play Off Semi Final:Second Leg Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Bruce’s demeanor

Before jumping into the comments and the result against Blackburn, the first thing that stood out from this presser was Bruce himself. Typically, he is bouncing, wearing a huge smile, and ready to throw out the usual boilerplate answers to obvious questions. This week, the answers were still there, but his mood was a bit down. He had that “Tim Sherwood look” in his eyes, in that he had not slept, and is worried about what is happening. Unlike Tactics Tim though, Bruce seemed to have shaved, but there was some difference in the tone of his body language.

In all fairness, this might have been a weird morning. Everyone has nights when they do not sleep as well, or perhaps he is a bit under the weather, but this change was unusual from the past weeks. The pressure seems to be there really, and the season is far enough along that results are starting to matter more than “we will get them next time.” With that back to the real news.

“There is always the next match”

According to Bruce, the entirety of the team and staff were disappointed with the result versus Bristol City and happy to get back to it. The international break seems to be a bit of an annoyance this time, with the lack of time to work to fix what went wrong, but still, Bruce said the team was up for the next match. Typically Villa is complaining about the break due to finding a run of form, but this time the exact opposite issue.

From there, Bruce quickly pivoted to reminding those gathered that this summer the team lost six regulars, and were unable to replace them due to the transfer embargo. The team lost “close to half of the first team” according to the gaffer, just to put a finer point on it. This has been the mantra so far, but the first time he made this point clear regarding how he rated those the team lost. According to Bruce, the new owners have “breathed new life into the club,” but “it will take time to put it all right.” He remarked that it is taking the players time to adjust to the training schedule and relocating to the area, all factors that have kept them from getting fully up to speed with the team. From the past weeks it has been the “we need to add players” line, and this week, those gathered got the “they are human” line. At least there is a bit of movement on that front.

In fact, according to Bruce, “the longer the season gets on, the better we will become.” The hope is that simple time with the club will allow the new talent to work their way into how the team plays, but at the same time, Bruce wants to work them into how the team is playing as opposed to changing the team to accommodate the new players. That is unusual in that the formation changed at the weekend from the 4411 to a 433, and after adding in some of the new signings later in the game to an almost 4312. Without tipping his hand, the team is looking to play in new ways, which should help work with the new players.

Loans

Bruce was quick to defend recent moves, without naming them explicitly, concerning the players that are leaving the club. News of Richie De Laet going to Australia broke around the time of this presser, and clearly, this was one of the moves that Bruce was highlighting. According to Bruce, the moves are crucial to balancing the books to avoid Financial Fair Play violations, and the players are leaving due to necessity versus not fitting into the club’s needs.

From this, the fans can intuit that the contacts the team is offering, or covering with the likes of Abraham and Bolasie are less than those of De Laet. What will be interesting to watch in the coming months is how much the failed move of Albert Adomah hurts the club. It seems that he is one of the top earners, and with a surplus of wingers who drift inside, how much was the summer plan reliant on moving him out. Will there be funds in the winter, or is this the team the rest of the year? Only time will tell how much finances will dictate this campaign.

Loans also pose an issue as only a short-term, or one year, fix to the wage bill issue. The team will be back in this spot next year.

“Prove over the next 40 games.”

The theme for Bruce so far this year has been the long game. It will all work out if the fans wait until the players find each other, and all this will all look like last year. That is why it was not surprising to hear Bruce talk with this long frame in mind, but still has been the most direct that he has been to date on the subject. To point out that there is a long season to go is a fair tactic, but also begins to focus the attention on why the team needs to pick it up soon.

According to the gaffer, the goal is to “concentrate on the current squad and what goes ahead.” He finally has who he wants, and has a plan on how to use them, now all that will matter is how quickly the team begins to fire on all cylinders. That being said, it is only fair to allow the manager who took this team to a final last year to have time in training with the players he wanted.

“There will be a reaction, I’m convinced.”

Knowing the result of the Blackburn match, there was a reaction, but not one that stood out in the way that Bruce had planned. The excitement with Connor Hourihane’s goal was deadened a bit when taking into account that this was more two points lost than one gained. In all fairness, the goal that Blackburn scored was more a bit of luck than a good piece of play or a defensive let down. Still, there was confusion about positioning at the goal during the event itself. The critical part was Hutton picking the wrong side, not knowing where the keeper would be. Hard to blame this on Hutton alone, but not a good sign at the least.

The goal itself could be tied to the lack of time playing together, as Bruce commented on after the game, but it seems that the players Villa played at the back this week had been working together since the window last January. The situation is different with Tommy Abraham and Jonathan Kodija for example, as they have not been playing together. Still, the goal was tied to those who Bruce had been working with in training already. And yet, Axel Tuanzebe was playing at a new spot in a Villa shirt. So perhaps there is something to be sorted out. Still, if this is where he will be moving forward, then this will be a pivotal place to watch.

The good news is that there were no significant injuries that halted the working of the team, with only a few “bumps and bruises” from the break according to Bruce. While this was not said at the presser, it seemed that Jonathan Kodija was sitting for the first half due to the travel, and looked to be ready to go when he did get some time in the second half. The other name that Bruce mentioned was Jack Grealish, who also played a full game, but did not leave on an international trip. Healthy players mean work on the pitch, which is only a good thing.

All in all, it seems that Bruce had viewed Blackburn as a credible opponent, but a beatable team, that could showcase what the team wanted to do. Hence, three strikers, and the back four. Still, the game will go down as a loss, but on another day might have been a win. If McGinn is awarded a penalty, or Abraham finishes that move in the second half, or a variety of other things happen another way, this would be a three-point celebration.

The message from Bruce is give us time, and while fans might be calling for him to leave, the new owners are not willing to make that move just yet.