The Villans finally surrendered their unbeaten home record in the limp defeat to fellow strugglers Ipswich Town at the weekend. Personally, even despite our recent troubles, I couldn’t see anything other than a win over the Tractor Boys beforehand. Losing to a team that couldn’t beat non-league outfit Lincoln City even after two attempts in the F.A Cup is particularly galling.
If anybody still harboured pipe dreams of us making the play-offs before this defeat then they must surely accept now that we will be playing Championship football again next season. A positive outlook is all very well and with sixteen games still to play there are still forty eight points up for grabs. However, there are some cold, hard facts which show that we are simply not going to make up the distance to sixth place, which now stands at a massive sixteen points. In fact, the truth is that the play-offs dream ended several weeks ago.
We would need to win six games just to make up the current gap to sixth. We have only won eight games all season. On top of that, we would need to maintain a winning streak of epic proportions to continue to chase the teams that are already ahead of us. In reality, we probably would need around forty of those forty eight points that are on offer.
An analysis of our results this season throws up some shocking patterns and statistics, highlighting exactly why the playoffs were out of reach for us weeks ago.
We have won back-to-back games just twice all season. We have yet to win more than twice in a row. For a team with aspirations of chasing promotion, this isn’t good enough. Our inability to put together a winning streak of any real worth has hampered us all season.
Alongside this, we have won just once outside of October, November and December, with a 3-0 defeat of Rotherham United in the second league game of the season being the anomaly.
Steve Bruce joined in mid-October and his first game in charge was the derby clash against Wolves which ended 1-1. A fruitful spell of games followed, with seven wins coming in the next twelve games. However, that Wolves game perhaps masked a couple of characteristics that would in fact see us lucky to go on such a good run of form.
Our dependence on penalties during this time was overlooked by many. Without them we wouldn’t have won games against Reading and Blackburn Rovers. We also relied on them to pick up a point in the Wolves game and to salvage a draw against Leeds.
Furthermore, the game against Wolves also saw us squander a winning position. This defining characteristic has occurred on ten separate occasions in the league this season. That represents exactly a third of our total games played so far where we have taken the lead and not gone on to win. That has cost us a whopping twenty-two points. Even if we had gained half of these, we would be sitting in eighth position right now.
Most damaging of all, however, is our away form. We have lost nine of sixteen games. Worse still, we have just two wins in that time. Even more damning is the fact that we have scored just eight goals on the road so far. We haven’t scored more than once in any of those games. It’s mind-blowing that we can drop a league level and struggle to breach so many teams to this extent.
Those factors are crucial in our position. We haven’t been scoring anywhere near enough goals, we cannot keep clean sheets and we are wasteful of leads. Our home form kept us in touch with the chasing pack but our away form meant that we would never reach those top six places. Importantly, these are factors which have been prevalent all season long, which is why reaching the play-offs has been an unrealistic dream for some time now.
At this point, we are really in limbo. The season is effectively over. Some supporters’ minds have turned to us facing a relegation battle and, whilst it is unlikely that we will descend to such depths, we need to be mindful that we are only seven points from safety right now.
The only real goal we have now is to use the remainder of the season to allow the team to gel. We’ve had so many incomings and outgoings over the last couple of years that we are left with a group of players who are now effectively strangers. Whilst it was necessary to completely revamp the playing staff after last season, we must remember that there are now only a handful of players in our squad who were at the club before the start of this season.
There are growing cries for Bruce to be sacked. I was never enthralled by his appointment and remain unconvinced by his brand of football. However, sacking him now achieves nothing and would leave us in a position where a new manager would probably want to overhaul the playing staff all over again in the summer, as well as bring in yet another coaching team. It’s too disruptive. We would be no better off, in my opinion. So, although I am still not Bruce’s biggest fan, he simply has to stay put, be supported and be given at least until the end of this calendar year to see how the team progresses under him.
The hard part is that it is likely that results will continue to be underwhelming for the foreseeable future while Bruce’s charges settle into a team. As I alluded to earlier, I doubt we will suddenly start winning game after game any time soon, especially as we look to be in the midst of deciding which formation is best to use. With a bit of luck and patience, results will hopefully pick up a bit of consistency towards the end of the season and give us a glimpse of what is to come next year.
Despite me waving the white flag on this season, I do think there are positives to hold on to. The potential of Jonathan Kodjia and Scott Hogan as a partnership is exciting. Our problem area of midfield now looks much stronger, thanks to the January acquisitions. It will be good to see Mile Jedinak fitting in there also after injury. Perhaps a couple of defensive reinforcements and a settled, experienced goalkeeper should be our only requirements in the next transfer window. Avoiding a complete reconstruction of the team should help us massively.
It’s not ideal and it may seem defeatist but the best we can do is to accept this season is another dead loss and see it simply as preparation for a serious promotion challenge next time round. As disappointing as that is to admit in mid-February, nothing is going to change this season.