Aston Villa continued limping towards the finishing post with a hugely underwhelming 3-1 defeat to Norwich City last Saturday. Optimism and expectations had risen thanks to previously demolishing Reading 3-0 before the trip to Carrow Road but that only served to make the loss to the Canaries all the more difficult to take but beating Cardiff City still matters!
The joy of automatic promotion rivals Cardiff spectacularly blowing their chance to pick up points against champions-elect Wolverhampton Wanderers less than 24 hours earlier was short lived. The door had been left wide open for us and somehow we manage to trip over ourselves and stumble headfirst into the doorframe instead.
Villa has had so many second chances and opportunities and they’ve blown it each and every time. We had a relatively kind run of fixtures and have one way or another we have turned into a goal shy, defensively feeble excuse for a football team. And worst of all is that I genuinely didn’t even see it coming, especially after the 4-1 victory over Wolves.
For me, the most frustrating thing of all is that the match against Cardiff at Villa Park on Tuesday is now pretty much a dead rubber. A match which should’ve promised so much. A match which saw us with our destiny in our own hands provided we were in touch to make it count. And now, it will have no bearing on whether we go up or not.
Or will it? Because, perhaps indirectly, it is a match that could still hold considerable significance for us. It will, of course, be typical of Villa to now cruise to a victory now that appears it is too late in the day to grab second place. However, ultimately it could be psychologically huge to nab a win over the Bluebirds should they also blow their chances of automatic promotion and they become a potential playoff opponent.
Fulham is the team everyone wants to avoid. And whilst I don’t think we should ever fear playing against anyone in this division, the Cottagers are currently bomb proof. It is well worth remembering that we have actually already beaten Fulham this season. But it can’t be denied that I would much prefer to play a team that has crumbled and given up second place rather than an inform team who just missed out but we’re doing everything they could to steamroller into an automatic spot.
Beating Cardiff will dent their hopes and boost Fulham’s. At the same time, we would gain a huge edge in knowing that we can get one over them. So, although meaningless in terms of us now avoiding the playoffs, the game still has importance.
The inquiries into why we have faltered so badly will continue and to be honest it is difficult to pinpoint to one single thing. Manager Steve Bruce has cited fatigue as a reason which doesn’t really sit well with me. Team selection has been deliberated and Bruce seems unsure of when to reshuffle his pack and when to stick. Perhaps most bizarrely is the recent liking for chasing losing games by throwing on four strikers onto the pitch with no midfield to feed them. I do the same thing playing Football Manager and setting the mindset to ‘Overload’ – it rarely works and I’m always absolutely desperate and out of ideas when I do it. Make comparisons if you will.
Subtly switching tactics seems to be beyond Bruce. He has a wealth of players to switch formations effectively. Yet even a change from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 seems to be overlooked and we’ve recently ended up going for a desperate 4-2-4.
Bruce isn’t solely to blame. The players aren’t performing up to the standard they were a few weeks ago. In short, it’s hard to avoid the fact that most of them have seemingly choked. Bruce hasn’t done anything radically different to cause such a downturn in form. In a team full of experience and ‘leaders’ I genuinely didn’t expect us to bottle it in this manner.
Albert Adomah has seen his goals dry up, although his high work rate is still noticeable to be fair. Robert Snodgrass hasn’t quite been zipping the ball in as usual. Conor Hourihane has looked a little off the pace to his usual standards and Scott Hogan remains inconsistent from game to game. Defensively, we’ve been poor, being outdone by several soft goals and the understanding between John Terry and James Chester seems to be off-kilter right now.
Perhaps one of the most crucial things is the defensive midfielder role is one that Bruce seems to be struggling with and making the wrong choice for the wrong games. Birkir Bjarnason has been a revelation sitting in a deeper position. However, just when it seems that the Icelander is due a run in the team, Mile Jedinak will step in instead. Some games may require Jedinak’s more physical presence, but it seems that Bruce isn’t quite pinpointing which games are best suited to which player.
I’m loathed to turn this into a ‘Bruce Out’ piece because this is certainly not the time for the fans to turn on him now. It’s clear that he isn’t ever going to be a crowd favourite and I’m not keen myself but we have to wait until the season is over to assess his position.
But he does need to step up and ensure the mistakes and faults he is admitting to being eliminated, pronto. Ever since acknowledging he should’ve made changes after the Wolves game for the visit of Q.P.R, he seems completely unsure of the best starting eleven to put out. Perhaps he is over thinking things himself in that regard, but if the man at the top isn’t sure in what he is doing, then that will filter down to the players. Bruce needs to take control.
The playoffs will be no cakewalk. Several teams are fighting to get into the top six and we have five games left now to make sure we muster up some sort of form and confidence. If we don’t, then there are teams much more determined than the likes of Q.P.R and Norwich who will take us to the cleaners.
It starts against Cardiff. The importance of the game has shifted, but it’s still relevant. Bruce and the players need to step up. And if any greater incentive was needed, then getting one over on the thoroughly unlikable gargoyle that is Neil Warnock should do it.