A trip to the seaside last Friday yielded a point from a tie which, on paper, looked to be a very tricky encounter. The Seagulls are flying high in second place and were on a run of four consecutive wins before the Villans came to town. I have mixed feelings about the result. On paper, it seems like a hard-earned point against one of our toughest opponents. However, it actually highlighted several concerns as some familiar trends which need to be addressed resurfaced.
The general consensus is that Steve Bruce has made a good start to life in the Villa Park hot seat. He has. In six matches so far, we remain unbeaten, taking a total of twelve points from a possible eighteen, which is not too shabby at all. We are clearly difficult to beat, which is great, but we were difficult to beat under Roberto Di Matteo also. For me, there are three main issues lingering from the Italian’s reign that Bruce has been somewhat lucky to disguise and needs to put right sooner rather than later.
Defensively, much has been made of the blossoming partnership between James Chester and Nathan Baker. Statistically, we aren’t much better off. In Bruce’s six games, we have kept just one clean sheet. Tommy Elphick began as the early season darling of the fans, but this evaporated with a few less than assured performances before injury removed him from the side. Baker has taken his chance and has looked more solid, whilst Chester is clearly, in my opinion, our best centre back. However, goals are still being shipped too frequently. Whilst it is obviously unrealistic to expect a shut-out in every single game, it is causing problems due to inefficiencies in other parts of our play.
Not scoring enough
Those inefficiencies concern our attack. Goals are still at a premium. It is obviously pleasing that we have scored in each of Bruce’s games so far, yet only twice have we managed to score more than once in those games. Tellingly, on both of those occasions we were awarded penalties which were converted to help us score. It is a problem that Di Matteo was unable to solve and Bruce is having similar problems. With the wealth of attacking talent we possess, we should not be experiencing such issues. Jonathan Kodjia is proving to be our only reliable source of goals and it isn’t enough to rely on one man. With Ross McCormack, Jordan Ayew, Rudy Gestede and now seemingly Gabby Agbonlahor rotating in an effort to find Kodjia’s best partner, there is a real lack of consistency. Sooner or later, Bruce must give one of them a run of five or six games rather than chopping and changing so often.
Still squandering leads
The upshot of both of these issues is that we are still drawing too many games. Although supporters are generally happy with the point picked up at the AMEX on Friday night, I felt that the Seagulls were there for the taking. We had the chances to win the game and we played well enough to deserve all three points. For me, there is a dangerous mindset which seems to be developing that suggests gaining a point in these games is acceptable. The big issue here is that actually we aren’t gaining a point, we have actually dropped two. Di Matteo’s reign was blighted by late goals which cost us wins. The fact that we were leading in the games against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Birmingham City and now Brighton and Hove Albion appears to have gone unnoticed since Bruce arrived. It seemed that a very public tally was being kept under Di Matteo of how many points the team had lost, which was often bandied about as the key statistic surrounding our performances. It doesn’t matter to me if we concede in the eighty-fifth minute or the forty-fifth minute. If we had a lead and draw, the outcome is the same: we have dropped points from a winning position. Conceding late goals magnifies the situation, of course, as it feels like a defeat having come so close. The problem of squandering leads is still rearing its ugly head. For the record, that tally has now reached a total of seventeen points lost from winning positions, six of them under Bruce. It’s not acceptable, no matter what stage of the game it happens at. The fact it isn’t within the last five minutes is disguising the problem somewhat.
If Di Matteo was unfortunate in certain respects then Bruce appears to have plucked a four leaf clover on his way into Villa Park. Against both Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City, we were lucky to come away with a point. Against Brighton and Hove Albion, we were the better side. That is why I am not satisfied with a point. If the hosts had dominated then it would have been a good point. They didn’t. The belief that a draw was acceptable because Bruce’s boys were playing a good side simply allows for excuses.
A winnable game against Cardiff City is next up for the Villans then a tricky-looking game away against Leeds United. Newcastle United just this weekend visited Elland Road and the Magpies away with a fairly comfortable 0-2 win. Aston Villa Football Club has the players capable of going there and not thinking that a point represents a good enough result. We are drawing more than Walt Disney right now. Sooner rather than later those stalemates will end up costing us a chance to secure a play-off spot.
This is not an anti-Bruce piece. I see the tactical basics that Di Matteo didn’t seem to grasp. The benefits of a three-man midfield and substituting a striker for a defensive player to see out the last ten minutes are welcome changes. Nevertheless, the same, fundamental problems are lingering on. We have scored three penalties in Bruce’s tenure so far. We have scored just the same amount of goals from open play.
Nevertheless, a base has been built on which to move forward. An unbeaten streak is never a bad thing and that toughness will potentially be invaluable over the coming months. However, to deny a degree of luck in Bruce’s results so far would be foolish. A solution for the problem of scoring more than once in a game is clearly the conundrum that Bruce must solve – and quickly.