Steve Bruce oversaw yet another disappointing December showing in the 2-1 defeat against Brentford on Boxing Day which has seen Villa drop out of the playoff positions but is the manager safe from the sack?
If this was the month that was supposed to define our season, then we can now be fairly confident that the automatic promotion spots are beyond us.
Whilst points-wise it is obviously still mathematically possible for us to obtain that goal, the performances and results show that with just under less than half the season to go, we are well off the standard required to get right up there.
Where a few weeks ago, at least a playoff spot looked like it would be easily cemented, we now enter the final game of 2017 in the eighth position and there are very real concerns that we could miss out altogether come May.
The supporters feel that there is enough quality in the squad but Bruce is stifling that quality through negative tactics and general malaise.
Injuries have certainly not helped. But with the money we have spent, we should’ve had the necessary cover in place to cope with all but the very worst of situations.
Many polls on Twitter after the game at Griffin Park seem to show a roughly 80/20 split in favour of Bruce getting the sack. However, during a run of positive results I’ve also seen that split reversed in favour of Bruce remaining.
My own view is that Bruce is certainly underachieving and even during the run of decent results pre-December, I’ve always said we were lucky more often than we were actually deserving winners. However, the big problem we have is that Bruce is, in many ways, unsackable.
It’s all very well that we as supporters cry for Bruce’s head. However, the first huge problem with that is who comes into replace him. All too often we hear that Bruce has to go but there is no thought as to who comes in.
Obviously, after the Brentford result, the flavour of the month will be Dean Smith. Other candidates will range far and wide and many will be unrealistic such as Ronald Koeman and even Thomas Tuchel. But the point is that really, there is no one obvious candidate. There are fanciful ideas of who we would like, but how realistic are they?
The financial aspect of it all also has to be taken into consideration. With Bruce on a rolling contract, his own payoff may not be overly significant. But add to this, the compensation paid to a manager such as Smith who is employed and we could be getting into the millions already just in the process of getting someone else in place. That doesn’t even take into account the payoffs and compensation to get rid of and replace the backroom staff that inevitably will be part of the process.
For a team trying to keep their heads above the Financial Fair Play regulations as we are, it would represent a huge investment for us. The money to do that may not even be available.
If we were to bite that particular bullet and sack him, it would make sense to do so as soon as possible in the new year and give a new manager some time in the January transfer market. That in itself is another huge stumbling block. As we saw last summer, the well has run dry thanks to FFP and so a new incoming manager would have little room to manoeuvre. Whilst the squad has quality and should be good enough, a new man will always want to bring in at least one or two new faces. That would be largely impossible for us to guarantee. In that regard, we may not exactly be an attractive proposition. Although the existing talent should be tempting enough.
Whoever came in would more or less be a risk. We can’t guarantee that the various managers we think are best for the job will come in and hit the ground running and get us playing good football and win games.
However, despite this poor run of form, easier games are around the corner and injuries will start easing up and it is likely that we will once again pick up. In short, Bruce will always do just enough to keep us there or thereabouts. In that regard, he makes himself very difficult to sack. We’ve seen across the city the ramifications of getting rid of a manager who has the team in and around the playoff places.
I’m not overly surprised that December has been a poor month. I never feel confident going into games against the teams in and around us. There is always the feeling that we don’t enter the games in a bullish manner. We always seem to pander to the tactics of the opposition rather than impose ourselves. For me, that is down to Bruce.
Our inability to beat our promotion rivals (at this point we still haven’t beaten a team in the current top 7) is killing our season.
The football served up is, for the most part, dull. The team selections at times border on the ridiculous. Pairing Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak at Brentford was such an obvious mistake. Their combined age alone is 66 and offer nothing going forwards – it was clear they would be overrun by a younger, more energetic opposition.
Conor Hourihane has more assists than any other player over the last 18 months but still doesn’t ever get played in an advanced position. There are many things wrong with Bruce’s football.
Dr Tony Xia would be an extremely brave man to sack him at this point. It would represent a huge gamble and if it didn’t pay off then the consequences are huge because, with just under half of the season to go, Bruce will still have a very good chance of grinding out enough victories to get us into the playoffs. It’s disappointing that that is the extent of our hopes now.
With no sign of Xia pulling the trigger, you would also have to assume that the playoffs were the target agreed on by the board at the start of the season. In a season that it is crucial to gain promotion, that seems underwhelming. But if so, that is another point that goes in favour of Bruce remaining in his job.
I’m no fan of Bruce. He is underachieving and personally, I think his tenure represents a very real risk of failure.
But he does just enough to keep himself in the job and there are several factors that make sacking him extremely difficult.
In saying that, it is clear that Bruce probably won’t be in the job either way next season. Failure to gain promotion will be seen as grounds for dismissal surely. There would need to be a huge leap of faith to stick with him as a Premier League manager. So does giving him the sack at this point actually represent the risk that it would first appear? Perhaps not.
However, I fully expect us to play it safe and for the Bruce in/out debate to continue for the remainder of the season and the pendulum of his popularity to swing back and forth as it has done so far based on the run of form we are experiencing.
But in choosing to stick with Bruce, the club takes just as much of a risk as they do in replacing him.