Character is revealed when pressure is applied – Thoughts on Norwich
“Come on! Let’s be havin’ you!” (a possibly tanked-up) Delia Smith famously slurred on the Carrow Road pitch a few years back. The doyenne of 1980s cooking was imploring the fans (and players) of Norwich to pull themselves together and buck their ideas up at a critical time on the season. Perhaps Steve Bruce should have invited her to do the same for the Villa players yesterday lunchtime?
From the off, it was obvious to me that we were going to make a mess of things. Norwich were bang up for it – out of the blocks quickly, settling early and this despite having nothing more to play for than finishing above Ipswich this season. First to every second ball, high pressing and hard-working, they seemed at times to have three or four extra players on the pitch.
Villa, on the other hand, were poor. Despite the result from Cardiff the previous evening giving Villa all the motivation they needed, they were lethargic, ponderous and well off the pace from the word go. They were back to their infuriating worst, strolling around as if they were playing a pre-season friendly, not a must-win promotion clash at the business end of the season.
I mentioned in the match thread that the performance was typical of many we have seen this season. Even on our winning run of seven in a row, we often secured the wins more through luck than judgement. In terms of performance highs, only the games against Wolves, Birmingham and perhaps Bristol City showed Villa at their potential best. Most of the season has been average, or worse.
Many on here (and other Villa fan sites and forums) seem to believe that we have the best squad in the division and we should have walked the league this season. I really fail to understand the basis for this. Because we have spent £80-odd million? Because we bought the best players from Barnsley, Bristol City and Nottingham Forest, as well as adding an ageing John Terry, Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak? Most experienced squad? Definitely. Best? Not in my opinion.
Which brings me to Steve Bruce. The man famously has more promotions to the Premier League than any other manager, and the fact we are in the mix (just about) would suggest he hasn’t yet lost his mojo. But by the same token, the alarming drop in results demonstrates that the pressure is getting to him (and the players) and the obvious lack of a Plan B (or a Plan A, some might say) is beginning to show – throwing on a load of strikers while removing their supply line smacks of panic and desperation, rather than experience, control and promotion know-how.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that we do have the best squad in the division. Yet Wolves, Cardiff and Fulham look (and have looked for months) to be streets ahead of us in terms of style, performance and consistency. They must be, by this logic, far greater than the sum of their parts. Which in turn suggests that their managers/head coaches are getting far more out of their squads than Steve Bruce is getting from ours.
Bruce put his faith in what is arguably our best team at the moment, one which comfortably saw off a desperately poor Reading side; yet once again, the players let him down badly. Whatever you might think of Bruce, I don’t believe, for one second, that he sent out the players to play as lethargically, timidly and downright poorly as they did for the first hour. What followed is probably on Bruce himself – his now-default panic approach of sending on all of our strikers totally (and predictably) unbalanced us and apart from Grealish’s slightly fortunate goal, we never really looked like scoring.
The tension will be there for all to see on Tuesday night. Once again, the players choked when it mattered and with Cardiff surely desperate to get the win and keep hold of their second place, it will pile massive pressure on whoever Bruce selects. If we begin as poorly as we did yesterday, experience shows that our fans will soon become apprehensive, which in turn will transmit to the players, and I’m sure our dear friend Colin will have his players ready and waiting to pounce on this.
Even if we lose to Cardiff, there is no need to panic. Although the luck we enjoyed earlier in the season seems to have deserted us at present, there are still five games to go, and plenty of football to be played by all the teams in the mix. Realistically, second place has gone, but a couple more wins will guarantee the play-offs, ideally before we go to Millwall.
It really doesn’t matter who we then face in the play-offs – we have demonstrated time and again how inconsistent we are, so there will be no easy games and there is no way of knowing which Villa will turn up. The evidence suggests it will probably not be the Villa of Wolves, Small Heath and Bristol City, so I’d be quite happy for our luck to return over the play-off games.