Aston Villa is a team stuck in a rut. The weekend’s defeat to local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers was the latest in a string of showings which have become beyond lethargic. Now without a win since Boxing Day, there is a real sense that, after a brighter start to Steve Bruce’s reign, the team are regressing in both results and, perhaps more significantly, performances.
For a club that last week was reported to have the 20th highest wage bill in world football, the position we find ourselves in is quite incredible. A season that began with so much promise is in real danger of turning into yet another one to forget.
There are so many ongoing issues and fresh mistakes are being made by the week. I genuinely do not know where to begin.
On the pitch, there are so many concerns. For me, an experienced and calming influence in goal should have been a priority. No matter how talented Sam Johnstone may be, yet another youngster in that position was the wrong choice for me. We’ll find out in the coming weeks how he reacts to his part in the goal conceded to Wolves, but he didn’t cover himself in glory.
Perhaps an even more pressing matter is that of the striking options. Many fans often become impatient during the transfer months, despite history showing that most deals are concluded during the latter stages of the window. However, the state of our striking options at the present time is absolutely criminal. We had known months in advance that Jonathan Kodjia and Jordan Ayew were likely to depart for the Africa Cup of Nations. Whilst I was no huge fan of Rudy Gestede, he was (and is still) our second top scorer after Kodjia. His sale left us even further depleted. We should have had at least one solid target identified and all but sewn up by the time January came, even if it was just a loan option. It is unacceptable to find ourselves in this position after having the luxury of knowing what was coming. It isn’t like we’ve suddenly been ravaged by injuries. Responsibility must be taken somewhere along the line for the position we find ourselves in. With three games played so far in January, we have zero goals. We’re heading back into the territory where we used to be unable to even hold a goal of the month competition.
The pursuit of Jordan Rhodes doesn’t fill me with confidence. I think he is the sort of player who needs good service into the box to thrive and, as we have seen, we simply do not provide that. If we are about to start playing to those strengths then we may has well have kept Gestede. It is clear to me that we need a striker with pace. When Kodjia plays, part of his game is stretching the defences with his pace. For me, we are chasing the wrong man.
That brings me on to Gabriel Agbonlahor. Put simply, it isn’t working. He may be running around a bit more, but Bruce’s experiment to integrate him back into first team football as a leading striker is now becoming detrimental to the team. It needs to stop. The fans’ eyes are wide open and it is clear that he offers little and isn’t going to transform this team. To try to be fair to Agbonlahor, there is little in terms of quality service coming his way. However, when he has had chances he has fluffed them. He has always been more athlete than footballer and his pace was always by far his greatest asset. He does not possess the footballing intelligence to adjust to losing that asset. Bruce has gambled on Agbonlahor to get him out of a hole in January with the losses to AFCON and it is backfiring and leaving our season in tatters.
Scoring goals is an obvious problem. Whilst we were at least creating good chances earlier in the season, even those seem to have dried up. We are so pedestrian in our play it is laughable. Our passing is predictable and ponderous. There is no urgency. There is no one touch passing. We move the ball around so slowly it makes it easy to defend against us. Kodjia does at least play a bit more on the shoulder of defenders and drags them about to create some space, which is why having pace is so important in the side.
We need midfielders who are clever and tricky and who can spot a pass. I’m not overly convinced Henri Lansbury is the answer but we look so devoid of ideas that I’m actually at the point where I am willing the transfer to be concluded. On top of this, we have players like Jordan Veretout and possibly even Carles Gil who could have made a difference but were shipped out on loan. Gil may have found this a tough division for his stature but Veretout was certainly creating chances and gaining assists in a poor side last season. Yet the main point is that to leave ourselves so short is another mistake.
The most frustrating thing is that there is a player who could make a difference but just isn’t being used correctly. Jack Grealish is such a talented player and exactly the sort of playmaker that should be utilised. If ever a player should be positioned in a true number ten role, it is Grealish. The local lad is excellent at finding pockets of space to drop into and could link the midfield to attack perfectly. Yet we persist in playing him out on the left or, even worse, leaving him on the subs bench for most of the game. I genuinely think this would also help bring the best out of Ross McCormack. There is nobody threading through balls to the strikers at the moment. You can see McCormack making runs and having to come deeper to get into the game. It’s easy to say he’s a flop, but he’s not exactly in a team that creates much for him. Bruce must find a system that gives Grealish a licence to operate in that dangerous position.
Worryingly, as a whole, we have no discernible style of play. We aren’t an attacking outfit but we’re not a team that parks the bus (and nor should we be). We’re not a team noted for playing with wingers. We don’t really play long ball football either. We aren’t a team that will worry the opposition with tremendous pace. We just have no identity. We aren’t to be feared. We may be difficult to beat but away from Villa Park we are a joke, with an absolutely pathetic seven goals in fourteen games. Our away fans are an absolute credit and should be commended for having to endure the dross that is continually served up on the road.
I can count on one hand the times this season that I’ve actually been excited watching us play, where the players on the pitch have created a buzz for supporters and where we have been rampant and torn a team apart. Instead, for the most part, we have relied on scrappy performances, penalties and, luckily, Kodjia to pick up points. Performances that mean we aren’t even in the game are becoming all too common. To play in a derby game and not display a shred of passion or fight is unforgiveable. Bruce is already wheeling out the same old lines about those performances not being acceptable yet little is changing.
I didn’t expect us to come and waltz through this division but I also didn’t expect to feel this frustrated or for us to be playing as poorly as we have. Whilst I understand that the rot of last season takes time to fumigate fully, I do believe that our resources, infrastructure and players should all contribute to a higher standard of football than we are currently being treated to.
Bruce quickly needs to establish a brand of football and give Aston Villa an identity. At the moment we are floating from one game to the next and it simply isn’t good enough.