By the time you read this article, there is a good chance that Steve Bruce will no longer be the manager of Aston Villa. Media reports circulating at the time of writing suggest that Thierry Henry has verbally agreed on a deal to plunge himself into the deep end of management at Villa Park, where undoubtedly the most pressurised atmosphere in the Championship will be found.
On the face of it, it’s incredibly exciting. I mean, it’s Thierry Henry. An absolute legend of the game. However, that was as a player. There is nothing to suggest that this will necessarily translate into being a good manager.
The term ‘rolling the dice’ has been associated a great deal with Villa over the last few weeks. We clearly gambled on gaining promotion last season and it left the club is an almost ruinous state. The appointment of Henry would be yet another gamble. So is the smart move just to stick with Bruce?
There is an extremely vocal section of the support who wants Bruce out. However, on various polls on Twitter that I have seen, Bruce actually remains the preferred choice for the majority of fans, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
The cautious amongst us will tell you that the overriding factor in keeping Bruce is that the club needs stability. Although we have new super-rich owners, the situation surrounding Financial Fair Play continues to be uncertain. It may still very well be the case that there is further upheaval ahead with key players being sold. Maybe we do need a season to consolidate before being able to build again, as depressing as that sounds.
Bruce gets a slightly unfair rap from his detractors in my opinion. The overall image is that his tactics are negative and that the football is boring. Villa actually scored three or more goals in a game on eleven occasions last season. By contrast, runaway league winners Wolverhampton Wanderers managed the same feat twelve times; just once more.
Similarly, he is tarnished with a non-promotion of youth policy. But despite relying heavily on established older pro’s, we have seen the likes of Keinan Davis and Andre Green been given decent exposure to first-team football. There are routes into the team. Although it would’ve been good to see Callum O’Hare given more opportunities.
But I’m always hampered in trying to pick out Bruce’s positives because there is an undeniable tendency at times to employ stifling containing tactics. Unforgivably, the first half of the playoff final against Fulham back in May saw the very worst of this. And that’s where he falls down. As outlined, the team were clearly capable of blowing their opposition away. Yet still, instead of imposing ourselves, there were far too many occasions where we went into matches trying to grind out a result instead of playing our own game. And worse still, those methods all too often didn’t even work. Ultimately, he failed in his targets and with a further depleted squad this time around, there appears to be little chance of surpassing last season’s yardstick.
There are too many issues to be able to fully get behind Bruce. The bafflement at trying to reintegrate Gabriel Agbonlahor last year but his continued banishment of Ross McCormack. The insistence on using Conor Hourihane in a deep position when he clearly flourishes in a more advanced role. Throwing on all available strikers in a desperate attempt to win a game but overlooking the fact we have no midfield left to supply them?
And those are the type of things that, for me, tips that balance in favour of Henry. It is hard to believe that a man who excelled under the likes of Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola would try to play anything other than free-flowing attacking football. And I don’t know about you, but I would rather lose a game in that manner rather than sitting back and surrendering three points anyway.
I’m loathed to chop and change for the sake of it. But if opportunities to improve present themselves then there has to be a ruthlessness. There is no evidence that Henry would be an improvement. It’s still very much a gamble. But in weighing up the whole situation, ultimately whilst Bruce may be the safe and steady option, I don’t see how that approach takes us further this season. And we simply have to be a club that is progressing and aiming to get out of this league.
Henry seems to represent a positive option. From what I’ve seen of him, he’s intelligent and articulate. His punditry has steadily improved. In a field dominated by ex-pro’s spouting the same clichés and offering no insight, Henry does stand out by offering more, although perhaps still lacking the incision of say Gary Neville. But judging by Neville’s disastrous stint as Valencia manager, this is perhaps no barometer.
I alluded to Henry’s likeliness to play attacking football and you just really get a feeling from him that he’s confident in his approach and methods. On top of this, having a manager with contacts at both Arsenal and Barcelona is never a bad thing. Whether he is able to formulate a game plan, tactics and manage players, however, will remain to be seen.
Brentford‘s Dean Smith is still the preference for many supporters, but as he doesn’t appear to be in the running at all, it’s a moot point even discussing his credentials here. The options presented to us right now are Henry and Bruce. And for me, the risk of Henry compared to the likely stagnation under Bruce means that we have to make the change.
If Bruce does depart, despite the Fulham playoff shambles, he should still leave with a massive amount of respect. He did steady a ship in crisis. He was ultimately the deciding factor in why we had the pleasure of watching John Terry in a Villa shirt for his final year. And the way he battled through losing both of his parents within a couple of months of each other should never be forgotten by anyone. There were positives and at times, the football was good to watch despite the consensus that every single game was dire. But last season was his time to get us up. And it’s hard to see him emulating those efforts this time around.