With the disappointing championship campaign over, thoughts are already firmly geared towards next season and a compulsory promotion push. For a change, it finally appears that we may be treated to a much more settled summer. Entering the new campaign with minimal upheaval is key. This, of course, means sticking with Steve Bruce as manager.
Sticking with Bruce won’t please a growing vocal majority who would like to switch managers once more. The football from last season was underwhelming, to say the least. It is difficult to pinpoint any real moments where we looked scintillating as a team with quick incisive passing.
Before I go any further, I’ll lay out my own views on Bruce clearly. I’m not his biggest fan and I was left feeling extremely uninspired by his appointment last October. I still do. At the same time, I understood why he was brought in. We needed to settle things down. We needed someone experienced to steady the ship in the midst of the chaos. The team was disorganised. Bruce would at least bring a solidity and authority which was severely lacking. We had been starved of winning games for such a long time; Bruce would at least grind out some victories, even if they were as ugly as the man himself. To be fair, he did that to an extent but for a poor January and February, the season could’ve turned out differently.
Like many others, I do have concerns over Bruce’s ability to get us promoted next season. Whilst he has serious pedigree at this level with four previous promotions, has Bruce actually been left behind in the game a little bit?
We know the football will be tough to watch at times next season. To an extent, I can cope with that as long as the results come in. I understand that being solid at the back is a foundation to build on. Our lack of goals this season was a major cause for concern for me. Taking a closer look at things, that may not be quite as debilitating as it first seems.
Employing such caution in our play is looking more and more like an outdated way to win games, however, scoring bagfuls of goals isn’t necessarily the answer either. Both Norwich and Brentford netted eighty-five and seventy-five goals respectively this season but had nothing to show for it.
Interestingly, Huddersfield Town, who have a chance to win promotion to the Premier League in the playoff final this weekend, actually finished with a minus two goal difference. That is worse than our own total of minus one.
Yet the Terriers were praised all season long for their free-flowing and exciting football. A total of just fifty-six goals doesn’t really indicate that was the case. After all, that is just nine goals more than we scored ourselves. That is a gap which is enough to make a difference, yes, but over the course of forty-six games, isn’t a huge disparity. When you throw in the fact that Huddersfield conceded ten more goals than us, it shows us that goals scored and against as a total can actually mean very little.
Perhaps the most interesting stat of all is that twenty-two of Huddersfield’s twenty-five victories this season came by just a single goal. That includes eight 1-0 victories and ten 2-1 wins. In a season where Villa supporters were, incredibly, bemoaning winning games only by the odd goal, Huddersfield was making a habit of it on an almost weekly basis. To top it off, manager David Wagner was earning rave reviews for doing so whilst Bruce continued to be vilified.
So what is the difference? Apart from the glaringly obvious consistency in results of course. Is Bruce really getting that much wrong at Villa?
Perhaps most noticeably for me whenever I saw Huddersfield play is that they have an identity. They are fast, and pass the ball quickly and move off it. They press when they don’t have possession. There is a vibrancy in their play. We don’t have any of those qualities.
Bruce still has to give his side an identity. It is crucial. We need to get some pace on the side. We are so pedestrian and laboured. That cannot become our trademark any longer. The frustrating thing is that we have the players at our disposal to be exciting to watch.
Many people will highlight the likes of Huddersfield, Reading, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday as all having ‘progressive’ younger, continental managers. There is very much a school of thought that English managers are being left behind as clubs seek the cheaper, yet ultimately more successful, alternatives from abroad who bring an apparent more attractive style of football. Each of those teams previously mentioned occupied the playoff spots this year, which gives the argument some credence.
Perhaps even more damning is the fact that all five overseas managers operating in the Championship (the other being Rafa Benitez) finished in the top six places this season.
Of course, simply being a foreign manager doesn’t equate to being a success. You are probably thinking of Remi Garde right now, but I am loathed to use him as an example due to the absolute mess he was having to deal with in terms of Lerner et al. I still think he’ll do well elsewhere.
I can’t help looking at exciting managers such as Oscar Garcia who is currently at Red Bull Salzburg or Eduardo Berizzo at Celta Vigo and think they could really get something going at Villa. Unfortunately, since I first began harbouring hopes for them a while back, both have improved to a level where they are being linked with Barcelona and Sevilla for their next jobs.
Perhaps it is merely an age thing. I do think there is a certain cluster of more experienced English managers to prefer a cautious approach. Bruce for me can easily be grouped with the likes of Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis. Those deemed to be ‘old school’ and are known for getting a job done with no frills. Their methods bring relative success, in so much as they are very good at avoiding relegation. Yet it isn’t just the style of football. It is the complexity of the tactics that is an issue also. There seems to be a real inflexibility with these sort of managers to adapt and evolve. Just occasionally, it would be great to feel that Bruce has outwitted an opponent. Even Tim Sherwood was capable of doing that at times. Or was that just pot luck?
There are plenty of up and coming English managers. Lee Johnson and Garry Monk are just two examples who are amassing steadily growing reputations and who look to play more attractive football. Yet for some reason, the foreign managers still appeal more. Is it because it’s more ‘sexy’ and cool to have a suave European prowling on the touchline? Is it the Pep effect? Perhaps. Are Villa in a position to take a gamble on any of these younger managers? I don’t think we are. Not at this moment at least.
The big problem is that Dr Tony Xia would have to massively gamble if he decided to sack Bruce now and it just isn’t going to happen. All the noises coming out from Xia and chief Executive Keith Wyness are about backing Bruce in order to succeed next season. That is the right thing for us at this moment in time. Besides, it is the only option they have right now.
I do think Bruce is somewhat antiquated in his ways. The football isn’t good to watch but I don’t necessarily think that means that promotion is beyond us next season. We have the players, however, Bruce does need to make some adaptations to get the best out of them. There are some signs of life, with the emergence of the exciting Andre Green being given chances in the first team for example. With any luck, that bodes well for a less turgid outlook.
I’m personally resigned to giving Bruce the chance to come out of the blocks flying next season. There is no other choice. Let’s not forget, his last promotion came with Hull City only the season before last. Things haven’t changed all that much in just one season.
This is still the biggest opportunity of his managerial career. The stability in place is a good thing. He now needs to build on that and begin to show his younger rival managers that he isn’t quite the dinosaur that many people see him as.