Following relegation last season, Aston Villa entered a fervent summer of recruitment which was bankrolled by new chairman Dr Tony Xia. A figure somewhere in the region of £55 million was spent in an attempt to ensure that the Villans bounced straight back to the Premier League.
One of the most celebrated captures was Ross McCormack. The £12 million outlay represented a large portion of the total net spend, although fans were pleased that we had landed a genuine and proven goal-scorer at this level.
McCormack has a terrific record. In four of the last five seasons, the Scot has scored at least seventeen league goals. His last three seasons have been particularity prolific, with him racking up a total of sixty six league goals. That is more than any other player at this level.
Yet there have been seasons where McCormack’s goal-scoring touch has deserted him – and Bruce would do well to look at the reasons why.
In 2012-13, McCormack managed just five goals in thirty-two appearances. On the face of it, it seems that it was a really poor season for him. Yet in reality, McCormack was often played in unnatural positions, such as out wide or even as midfielder. This greatly reduced his potency but it is interesting to note that he garnered a respectable twelve assists during that campaign.
Going back further, a disrupted 2010-2011 also saw a poor return, with just two goals in total. Beginning the season with Cardiff City, a move to Leeds United materialised before the summer transfer window closed. McCormack rarely started during his maiden season at Elland Road; a mixture of injury and loss of form restricted him to a mere six starts and a further fourteen appearances from the bench.
Aston Villa supporters are just beginning to turn slightly on McCormack. However, I would argue that he is not being afforded the chance to be prolific. Having just identified that being played out of position and not getting a consistent run of games as factors which have hampered the player in previous seasons, the club is simply not creating the environment for him to thrive in.
A fair counterpoint to this may be that McCormack had regular starting roles, being played as a main striker, at the start of the season alongside a strike partner no less, which also appears to suit his game, rather than being a lone striker. A glaring shot against the post from two yards out against Nottingham Forest particularly stands out for me as a squandered chance, as does a one-on-one opportunity in the opening game against Sheffield Wednesday.
My only defence for McCormack’s underwhelming start is that he missed most of pre-season whilst still at Fulham. That opening fixture at Hillsborough saw McCormack leave the field absolutely exhausted after seventy five minutes. Perhaps a lack of fitness has contributed to a total of just two goals so far.
McCormack now finds himself in a difficult position. Jonathan Kodjia came in late in August but has since established himself as the main striker, thanks to some energetic performances and a decent return of four goals. With Rudy Gestede, Jordan Ayew and seemingly even Gabby Agbonlahor all vying for a place in attack, McCormack is in a position that he is not accustomed to. He is not the main man.
It may also get worse. Since Steve Bruce arrived in B6, it is interesting to note that McCormack has started just once. That was in Bruce’s first match in charge against Wolverhampton Wanderers. To be frank, McCormack had a stinker. Since then, Gestede has started, as has Ayew, and even Albert Adomah has been placed within a three-pronged attack. Perhaps that poor performance was a chance missed and will be rued.
The fact that Bruce has chopped and changed his options up front so far may indicate that he himself is unsure of the best system to play. A 4-3-3 gives McCormack the chance to start games but robs him of the opportunity to be at his prolific best. We perhaps saw evidence of that against Birmingham City, as he struggled to impact the game in that system after replacing Adomah early on.
With so much attacking talent, Bruce has a real task in finding the best way to get goals out of McCormack whilst still accommodating Kodjia as the main striker. We saw them as a pair against Wolves – and it didn’t look good. It may be worth trying them out together again, but Bruce appears to be favouring three attackers. If that is the case, then there are better, pacier options than McCormack.
As mentioned, a small number of supporters are beginning to see a lack of goals as a reason to lose faith in McCormack. I believe that would be a mistake. After all, we are only just into November. There are still thirty-one games to play and it is likely that injuries and suspensions will come into play before too long. McCormack remains a clever and extremely capable player. The Wolves game aside, I don’t think he has played badly, and he is always looking for the ball and making runs. At the very least, it is important for us to have options – and McCormack is a superb one to have.
For me, McCormack either has to play in a pair or as a central attacking midfielder. The big problem is that I personally think that he works best with Rudy Gestede, which isn’t a pairing we are going to see any time soon unless Kodjia gets injured (heaven forbid) or suspended.
Unfortunately, the square peg in the attacking dilemma appears to be McCormack. Kodjia is obviously the main striker. Gestede can play only as a central striker or in a pair. Both Adomah and Ayew offer more promise flanking Kodjia in a three-man attack than McCormack does. If we’re looking at a play-maker role, does that suit Jack Grealish more?
As problems for Bruce to tackle go, this will be one of the most favourable that he encounters. There simply may be no real solution to it. I am pleased still that we have McCormack on board, although it does rather seem that we’ll never quite see the best of him as we’d hoped due to the current competition.
I can’t help but feel that the summer recruitment drive simply identified a few players who were good at scoring goals without any real thought as to how they would fit into an actual team. Bruce will have to make some tough choices in the next few weeks to finally decide upon a more settled side in order to produce some consistency. Unfortunately for Ross McCormack, that may not bode very well for him at all.