An air of disgruntlement is growing amongst the Aston Villa faithful following a couple of disappointing results. We will look at the five key problem(s) we believe are currently holding us back.
Despite still occupying 5th position in the league, the healthy gap that had been built up over the 7th place has now been eroded to just one point in the space of a few of weeks. The important run of games during December that was going to shape our season appears to so far be telling us that we are playoff hopefuls at best rather than being contenders for an automatic promotion like many had hoped.
Despite the defeat against Derby only being our fourth loss in twenty-one games, there has been a constant feeling of struggling through the season. We’ve rarely played good football, but by and large, the fans seem able to tolerate this as long as the results come.
For me, there are several clear problems as to why it feels we are wading through mud rather than gliding through water so far this season.
The first problem and possibly the most important. We are missing someone who we can rely on to score goals regularly. Last season’s hero Jonathan Kodjia is out of action for the remainder of the season. We know that the Ivorian is capable of grabbing around twenty goals a season, as proven both with Bristol City and ourselves last year. That is a huge loss. I don’t see how any team can sustain a promotion push without a striker who is regularly scoring goals. Our other options in attack aren’t exactly looking likely to step up either.
I personally think that Scott Hogan is a good player and would score goals in teams that play the ball into him on the deck and find the runs that he constantly makes but it’s clear that it isn’t going to work for him under Bruce. Add to this the regular stints on the injury table and it is hard to see how he will suddenly transform into a regular goalscorer for us.
Similarly, Keinan Davis has a lot of potential and offers an excellent outlet to bring others into play. He isn’t looking like the type of striker that will score goals, at least not this season and so that just leaves Gabriel Agbonlahor. A man who hasn’t scored goals with any sort of regularity for many a season and has a more than questionable attitude and work ethic.
With Financial Fair Play restrictions biting us on the bottom, Bruce is going to have to pull off a miracle in the loan market in January. I can’t imagine there are many strikers capable of scoring goals that are just idly sitting around not being used by their current clubs. Straight away, let’s forget any ideas of Christian Benteke coming back; it’s completely unrealistic. Instead, Swansea’s Oli McBurnie has been heavily linked, as has Jack Marriott from Peterborough. Both of these options would represent a bit of a punt which is a worry in itself as we cannot afford to go through the second half of the season without a goalscorer. Lewis Grabban has been linked but his situation may prove complicated to get involved in, whilst Leicester City’s Leanardo Ulloa represents perhaps a more robust choice and has proven experience at both Championship and Premier League level. Bruce’s choice, whoever it may be, will go a long way in being the difference between gaining promotion and remaining in this division.
Plain and simple, the second problem is we aren’t taking enough points off the teams in and around us. As we sit fifth, we have played the four teams above us once each and have just one point to show for it. Whilst those games have all been away from home and in theory, represent our toughest games of the season, it still isn’t a good enough return. I never feel we have enough about us or that there is the belief that we are good enough to go to these places and win. It feels that there is a fear and it always seems that we would settle for a point and that we pat ourselves on the back for having done well to escape with something.
We play another two teams in the current top ten before the month is out. Sheffield United are riding the crest of a slump right now and Middlesbrough are perhaps the most inconsistent team in the league. Both of these games are winnable and we should approach them with the aim of exerting our superiority upon them. We need to take the points to dent their own hopes as well as improving ours and to ensure that December doesn’t become a disaster.
TURNING DRAWS INTO WINS
Similar to the previous problem in some ways, we are starting to draw way too many games this season. Whilst it may seem that we are picking up a valuable point here and there, in actual fact, we are being held back by not going for the win on more occasions. As an example of how stagnating draws can be, if we play five games and draw them all, we’d actually be better off points wise by winning two and losing three.
Yes, it is nice to be difficult to beat and being defensively sound is important of course, especially without a prolific striker to rely on but it isn’t the be all and end all. I’d rather lose a few more games and turn some of those cautious draws into wins.
This is especially true at home. Some of the most disappointing results this season have been the 0-0 draws at Villa Park against Brentford, Millwall and Middlesbrough. All of those games were winnable. Again, we’d have been better off points wise by winning one, drawing one and losing one of those games.
THE MIDFIELD BALANCE
The fourth problem is the chopping and changing of those playing in midfield. Formations and personnel seem to be forever tinkered with. Yes, there are injuries and players may need a rest here and there, but the extent of Bruce’s midfield meddling suggest that he still doesn’t know his best line up.
Conor Hourihane is a quality player but being shackled and played out of position. Josh Onomah has only shined sporadically. Robert Snodgrass has obvious quality but isn’t hitting the heights he should be. Henri Lansbury has been injured but when he does play his attacking game isn’t utilised anywhere near enough. Throw the returning Jack Grealish into the mix and we have further selection headaches. That isn’t even taking into account Albert Adomah’s current guaranteed starting place into account. Or the fact that one of either Glenn Whelan or Mile Jedinak will also occupy a starting berth. Or that Andre Green will soon be back from injury. Oh, and let’s not forget Birkir Bjarnason.
My point if you haven’t already guessed is that the squad is heavily saturated in midfield. Whether Bruce is trying to juggle things to keep everyone happy, I don’t know. But there is something still not quite right about it all. It feels disjointed and plodding at times. Bruce needs to find a settled formula sooner rather than later and begin sticking with it where possible.
BRUCE IS STILL MAKING MISTAKES
The final problem is that the manager keeps holding his hand ups and admitting he is getting things wrong and Villa fans are starting to grow weary. Obviously, this is a better approach than not being able to admit faults. However, the regularity with which our loveable potato head is coming clean is becoming worrying. And the apologies seem to be for incredibly obvious oversights.
Surely a man of his experience should know that playing without a recognised striker against Derby could only end badly? Surely he should be able to recognise that one of our most consistent performers this season is Conor Hourihane and he shouldn’t have been dropped for the game against Millwall, especially as Josh Onomah had been playing poorly and could’ve made way instead?
I know we’re not talking about a top class manager, otherwise, he likely wouldn’t be managing a Championship team. But there seem to be some very obviously bad decisions being made by an experienced man, and it is costing the team too many points.
It is all good and well pointing out the problem but the solution is something else. Maybe it isn’t our job to find the solution to the problem but Bruce is doing well enough to mean that sacking him would be as laughable as Birmingham City sacking Gary Rowett when they did. Bruce will see the season out, I’ve no doubt. But ultimately he is holding us back. It’s unfair to solely blame him, however, and we have had constant bad luck with injuries.
We’ve been lucky to have a relatively solid defence that has allowed us to scrape by, luck out and sneak several undeserved victories so far. The attack is sometimes the best form of defence and I also believe we have dropped points because of trying to keep things tight at the back instead of really going for a win.
Whilst I hold zero hope of Bruce suddenly throwing caution to the wind or sorting out the midfield, the most pressing point now is to secure a striker (or two) who can come in and score goals. Easier said than done of course. But the season only intensifies from this point onwards; falter to find a goalscorer and we struggle to make the playoffs, never mind automatic promotion.