Aston Villa have started the season poorly. After six league matches they sit 12th in the table despite favourable fixtures, they’re already out of the league cup and, frankly, the performances (20 minutes against Brentford aside) have ranged from distinctly average to completely unacceptable.
Steve Bruce’s side were outclassed by Sheffield United at the weekend in their 4-1 capitulation and, thanks to that debacle and something similar at Burton Albion, the obvious problems can no longer be waved away by the fact that they had remained unbeaten.
The early victories certainly masked issues and, while Bruce has milked the performance against Brentford (citing it as “the best they’ve seen Aston Villa play for years”), most supporters have seen through the pretence. Villa’s defensive woes are bordering on a crisis. The back four of Axel Tuanzebe, Mile Jedinak, James Chester and Alan Hutton contains three players out of position, new keeper Orjan Nyland has made a few mistakes already, and the backline looks an injury away from catastrophe. It is no surprise that Villa have failed to register a Championship clean sheet so far this campaign.
The defensive situation is made all the more bewildering by the fact that Bruce has just overseen a transfer window to rectify the situation. No doubt he would level that the club were in no position to sign players for most of the Summer, and that can’t be denied, yet after the takeover Villa have brought in two goalkeepers, a central midfielder, two wingers and a striker. Tuanzebe returned for another year but currently he is being deployed at right-back when there are already four, yes four, right-backs at the club. Surely the priority should have been to bring in a senior centre-back and a left-back. Regardless of the unusual Joe Bryan situation, this has been a clear failure. On top of that, to loan out Tommy Elphick with the dangerous lack of defensive depth, despite rumours of a move for John Terry, is just bizarre.
But neither the problems in defence nor the strange transfer window decisions are the reason Bruce needs to be shown the door. Bruce must leave because Villa simply won’t move forwards with him at the helm. He has been at the club for virtually two full years now and, while he steadied the ship brilliantly, Villa have not shown even a hint of progression in terms of their footballing style. You just never know what Villa side is going to turn up to each game and it is impossible to pin them down to a certain style of play (and not in a good way). The team still have absolutely no identity. No style, no tactics, no game-plan; how can that be after 23 months in the managerial hot seat?
The fundamental issue is summed up best by Bruce himself – “all I ask is to put your boots on, roll your sleeves up and have a go”. Really? There is so much more to modern day football and coaching than that. From the ‘All or Nothing’ documentary on Manchester City, it is clear that Pep Guardiola does more than asks his players to try.
It sounds ludicrous, but at times it genuinely seems that Bruce hasn’t coached this team one bit since arriving at the club. He has a fantastic squad at his disposal. Arguably, Villa have the best squad in the division for the third year running (at least in the top two or three) and he simply hasn’t capitalised on that. Such a talented group of players are capable of expansive and creative football at this level, and one does think of the possibilities under a different coach.
While Villa often play like a team who have never met before, both Sheffield United and Brentford display swift, exciting and attractive football week in week out. Obviously at times they come unstuck, but they stick to their style and are currently overachievers for the quality of player at their disposal. Sheffield United currently sit third, while Brentford are fifth, and Chris Wilder and Villa fan Dean Smith respectively are the men behind their early season form. Both Wilder and Smith are working with squads that were assembled with pennies when compared to the value of the Villa outfit. Yet both are directing their clubs towards success.
Wilder and Smith underline the importance of coaching and implementing a style and philosophy when it comes to the sustainability and success of a club. Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp highlight the same at the elite level. Marcelo Bielsa is perhaps the best example of all. Leeds United were terrible in the second half of last season. After the appointment of Bielsa in the Summer they are now sitting pretty at the summit of the Championship and playing some wonderful football. While they have made a few signings, the team looks very similar to how it did last campaign. The difference has come not in personnel but in their style and approach. If ever there was an advert for the importance of proper coaching, this is it.
Bruce is under pressure now and it is starting to show. He has thrown players under the bus in recent weeks. He spoke loudly of how the young players struggled at Yeovil, openly blamed Chester (fairly but maybe not wisely) after his Reading mistake, blasted the reserves at Burton in midweek and claimed the players needed to have a look at themselves after Sheffield United. He has claimed he can accept responsibility but doesn’t seem to do so in practice.
A large section of the away following turned on Bruce at Bramall Lane. As has been said often enough, when the away fans turn your days are numbered. In response to this, Bruce spoke of how the word ‘dinosaur’ will be much used in the coming days. But he can’t have too many complaints. He has failed to move with the times and has relied on moments of individual brilliance as well as his ability to attract star players. He has not coached a style of play or even any ideas into this star-studded line-up. Bruce said himself that he “doesn’t do tactics” while at Sunderland and his time there mirrors his situation at Villa in many ways.
Last season, Nuno Espirito Santo and Slavisa Jokanovic showed you don’t have to be as dogged and physical as Bruce makes out in order to be successful in this league. You can go up by playing neat, intricate football. Neil Warnock did it another way, but even he had a philosophy, regardless of how turgid and ugly it can be. What does Bruce believe in besides working hard? That remains unknown after all this time.
Aston Villa, with all its history, are mid-table in the second division. They have just been knocked out of the cup by lowly Burton and have failed to beat any of Ipswich, Brentford, Reading or Sheffield United in their previous four league matches. The club are a million miles away from where they should be. And the bottom line is that they can only get there with a sustainable approach that involves a progressive coach implementing a long-term philosophy and building a team around that. Bruce can’t do that because he doesn’t have a philosophy. He may eventually get Villa up, but it is unlikely he would keep them up and nigh on impossible that they would push on towards competing for a place in the Europa League (the least the club should be aiming for). Villa should start building now at their lowest point and, down the line, reap the rewards of a sustainable approach.
Bruce should be remembered in a positive light for his role in turning the juggernaut of Aston Villa around. But he is no longer the right man for the club. Thank you, but it’s time to go.