“What Do Points Make?”
Apologies for the title – I was looking for an inspirational Bruce quote. Unfortunately, the ‘Bruce` I came up with was Forsyth rather than Steve.
It seems poignant, and pertinent, that in the week that Villa legend (in my opinion at least) Graham Taylor passed away, we find ourselves yet again at a kind of crossroads. At the very least, the sat-nav needs rebooting. One of Taylor`s great quotes springs easily to mind: “This place is a shambles.”
Make no mistake. Aston Villa are still a club in a mess. 30 years (albeit 2 League Cups – oh, and an Intertoto) later. Years of gradual neglect, continuous short-term thinking & recent disgraceful mismanagement culminated in an abject, ignominious and ultimately pathetic relegation last season, with one of the worst teams (and records) in living memory.
Enter Dr Tony Xia, enigmatic Chinese businessman and Twitter junkie. Enter also Keith Wyness, highly experienced football executive. And with them, high hopes, promises of transfer millions and proper investment for the first time in years. But then in shuffled Roberto di Matteo, a left-field & slightly bewildering choice as the new manager, it`s fair to say. Did they really know what they were doing? Don`t panic! Steve Clarke & Kevin Bond were there to hold di Matteo`s relatively inexperienced hand. A summer transfer window and the thick end of £60m later we were, along with Newcastle, promotion certainties. Or were we?
This is Aston Villa. Somewhere along the line, we have managed to seriously upset the Gods of Football. Maybe they are Bayern Munich fans? Maybe they are Tranmere fans still aggrieved that Mark Bosnich was not sent off in the semi-final? Who knows?
Results and performances failed to materialise, the pre-season dreams quickly evaporated and Dr Xia and the board quickly realised their mistake. A pathetic defeat & insipid performance at Preston later and di Matteo and co were hustled out as rapidly as they were ushered in. With newly-installed Director of Football Steve Round in the house, hopes were high for the right appointment this time. Surely the powers-that-be couldn`t mess this up AGAIN? Could they, football gods?
Enter, this time, Steve Bruce – late of the Small Heath parish (and other mid-level clubs) but this time a manager with experience, and more promotions on his CV than you could shake a stick at. His time at The Sty were forgotten by all right-thinking Villa fans and initial signs were promising & Villa went on a 7-match unbeaten run few thought possible with the squad at his disposal. Defeat away to Leeds followed and we have coughed and spluttered ever since.
Bruce`s League record stands at P15 W7 D4 L4 F16 A13 Pts25. Taken over the season, that kind of return would just about get us a play-off place, but would be 10-12 points short of automatic promotion. This record also needs to be taken in the context of this squad having nothing to do with Bruce. Only Sam Johnstone (recent loanee and with only one League game for us under his belt) is Bruce`s sole signing. Bruce`s record has been achieved with a squad sorely lacking in talent, plenty of whom are still tainted by last season`s humiliation.
Numerous people on the forums have suggested Villa need to get rid of Steve Bruce, that it`s not working out. I`ve not often seen such a ridiculous over-reaction in my life! Hopefully these comments were made in the light of yesterday`s result. He`s been here the football equivalent of five minutes and is trying desperately to polish the biggest turd in Villa Park history. So far he`s done a pretty reasonable job whichever way you cut it.
Of course he`s not without criticism, and as paying punters, we have every right to voice our opinions. Trying to resurrect the career of serial waster Gabriel Agbonlahor to somewhere near his ‘glory days` has proved a miserably failed experiment. Continually trusting Ashley Westwood to run the midfield is another. Persisting with less-than-average veterans like Alan Hutton another still. But as I said, none of these players are his and he is desperately groping around like a teenager at a school disco for the jackpot – in this case, a regularly winning team.
The January transfer window is no time for a wholesale rebuild, and anyone we get in the next couple of weeks will surely improve the squad. It would be near-impossible not to. At the very least, we have to give Bruce the summer window and up until next Christmas to see what he can fashion here. I have no doubt he will get the support of Dr Xia and the board, subject to FFP.
In the meantime, questions can, and must, be asked of how Bruce is managing (and coaching) the squad we do have. As discussed ad nauseam, consistently playing Gabby is beginning to look like Bruce writing his own suicide note. Baffling substitutions also aren`t helping, and ending every match with a 4-0-6 formation smacks of desperation at worst and confused thinking at best.
Without doubt, the majority of the squad still don`t seem to have come to terms with the fact that they are no longer Premier League footballers, and are still swanning around in matches like big-time Charlies. There seems to be an air of “We`re Aston Villa, we`re bigger than you, we`re better than you, we`ll go straight back up.” Newsflash – We are. We are. We`re not. We won`t.
There have been improvements, however miniscule and imperceptive. The defence is nowhere near as bad as last season, although some of that could be attributed to the much lower quality of teams (and their strikers) in the Championship. We are unbeaten at home, some 5 months into the season. The fans, for the most part, are back onside. But that`s about as far as it goes.
In almost every other area, nothing has changed. We still can`t pass, we can`t tackle cleanly and give away so many free kicks as a result. Our set-pieces are generally atrocious. We can`t even take throw-ins FFS! This certainly raises questions about the coaching methods, whoever the manager might be. Are the players really that talentless (or stupid?) that they can`t pass the ball 10 yards to a teammate, or take a throw in to one of our players instead of the opposition?
Bruce has been here for 3 months now, and has had plenty of time to assemble his coaching staff and assess the squad. So far, he`s sold Rudy Gestede while putting his faith in Gabriel Agbonlahor. He has replaced one young, inexperienced goalkeeper with another. These are not the most convincing of transfers in my book. But as I said, January is not the time to engineer or achieve a major overhaul.
Ten or so points short of the play-offs is not irrecoverable, especially with 20-odd games left. But at the same time, we need at least another 40 points (or the equivalent of two points per game) to just reach the play-offs. Whichever way you look at things, automatic promotion is out of the question. What happens in the transfer window will merely be laying the foundations of a promotion challenge for NEXT season in my book.
Even if we were to achieve the required points and reach the play-offs, and then win the final, would we really be ready for next season in the Premier League? I`m not so sure. Years of mismanagement, toxicity and woeful coaching have left us with a mountain to climb. We are light years beyond our peers – Everton and Tottenham for instance. The case could be made that if we were to get promoted this season, a summer of proper investment, handled by experience of Bruce, Wyness and Round, would see us right. And so it might.
But as we sit here today, going up this season would be a Herculean achievement and might just as easily promote false hope and belief in where we are as a club. And all it might take is one Gareth Southgate-led cock up and the FA might finally get around to Steve Bruce`s name on its Rolodex (do people still have those?!)
Although one or two on this site would argue differently, we are in no danger of a second successive relegation. But neither are we looking even close to promotion. The better course of action now might be to write off this season as one that really is of transition, and look on Bruce to use the time between now and August to properly strip down and reshape this squad (and club maybe) into his kind of team. Use the time to finally get rid of the chancers, wasters, has-beens and never-will-bes at the club. Use the time to bring in players with talent, desire and something to prove. And then we can hit the ground running next August for a proper, full-on promotion tilt.
So, n-n-n-n-nice to see you Steve .to see you? Nice. Maybe. We can answer that in 12 months` time.