Aston Villa’s unbeaten start to the season continued with a 1-1 draw away at Ipswich last Saturday. Despite a summer of turmoil in which there was real uncertainty for the future of the club, our solid start has still left a large section of the fan base feeling underwhelmed. And it isn’t completely unjustified.
Obviously, things could be much, much worse. And they almost certainly would’ve been had Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens not stepped in when they did. Yet there is a feeling that although we should be grateful for our current situation, we’re somewhat scrambling through games at the moment. And manager Steve Bruce is facing the brunt of the criticism.
The result at Portman Road was indicative of the current feeling. Obviously, there are no games where we have a right to win just by turning up. However, having taken (and squandered) the lead, the Tractor Boys were reduced to ten men just before the 40-minute mark, giving Villa a golden opportunity to record a third straight league victory.
I think that a large proportion of the fan base understand that it isn’t always straightforward in breaking down a team of ten men. They’ll usually shut up shop and if they have a chance of a result of some sort, will tend to fight hard to keep hold of that. If they do concede, then it tends to become a little easier.
But despite having ample time to ratchet up the pressure there was a clear lack of urgency and invention. The only real test for Ipswich keeper Bartosz Bialkowski came in injury time when Conor Hourihane stung his palms from outside the area.
And it’s the fact that we never really looked close to putting Ipswich under sustained pressure or having the craft or guile to unlock them which is the problem. And it is Villa’s general style of play, ultimately Bruce’s responsibility, that is currently dividing the fan base.
Social media, Twitter especially, is a pretty unpleasant place right now if you are Villa fan. There is a clear ‘Bruce out’ or ‘Bruce in’ mentality which is causing some pretty unsavoury comments, insults and downright obnoxiousness. It’s incredible that one figure, who in general is pretty inoffensive himself, can create such a toxic atmosphere.
For me, things aren’t simply so black and white. There are aspects of Bruce which shouldn’t be underestimated. Personally, I think his presence was a big factor in the club regaining a level of stability after the debacle of relegation and the Roberto Di Matteo fiasco. I also think he should be credited with creating a much more professional dressing room which isn’t something which just happens overnight.
And also without Bruce, we would never have had the pleasure of seeing John Terry in a Villa shirt. I also think he the way he conducted himself in the midst of losing both parents within a couple of months of each other should not be underestimated and underlines a certain resolve in his character. And, importantly, there have been occasions where we have played really good football; the hammerings of both Bristol City and Wolverhampton Wanderers just two examples of several that could be put forwards from last season.
But there are just too many issues where he simply isn’t helping himself. His team selection at the moment is baffling. Mile Jedinak at centre back is clearly not comfortable. In an emergency, by all means, he’s an option to consider but to be using him there week in week out is strange. Axel Tuanzebe would be a much better fit, but is currently being wasted at right back; a position where we already have a stockpile of natural players who must be scratching their heads. When the team isn’t playing fluidly, which it isn’t, this has to be looked at.
On top of this, there just feels like a real lack of bravery in Bruce’s tactics. The ultimate example of this, of course, came back in May when the team were sent out in the playoff final to sit back and try to contain rather than imposing ourselves on Fulham. It backfired massively. And I still find it unbelievable, and unforgivable, that we were set up to play that way.
The frustration comes from the feeling that we have the players to really make a statement in this league. And we do. Without wanting to come across as blinded or unrealistic, the rest of the clubs in this division would love to have the vast majority of our players. And as touched upon previously, we showed several times last season that when given the freedom, we can totally overrun teams at this level.
Ultimately I’ll always put results over style, especially for our current goal of just getting back into the Premier League. But the concern can’t be ignored that the teams we have so far played will end up being little more than fodder for the big boys. Hull City, Wigan Athletic and Ipswich Town are teams that will be looking over their shoulder towards the end of the season. And we haven’t looked convincing against any of them.
Wednesday’s game against Brentford at Villa Park will be our first real test. A team that we’ve struggled against since dropping to the Championship, many fans feel that Bees manager Dean Smith should be the successor to Bruce. Whilst I don’t necessarily subscribe to that opinion myself, there is no denying that he has worked wonders at Griffin Park whilst trying to implement an attacking style where possible. I see the allure, but I think that it is also clouded simply by the fact he is a Villa fan.
I have to admit however, I was extremely surprised to see that Bruce kept his job when the rumours of appointing Thierry Henry were circulating. Henry may or may not have been the right move, we’ll never know. But what was clear is that Bruce has shown an inflexibility which holds us back at certain moments and it’s hard to see him changing his philosophies and methods at this stage of his career.
We’ve managed to get off to a solid start, but whether we can sustain it whilst playing so poorly is unlikely. There will have to be a marked improvement. That isn’t out of the question given that most clubs are still getting into a rhythm at the start of the season. Bruce will perhaps not have quite so much of the slack of the rope shown towards him as under Tony Xia’s stewardship. Hopefully, that pressure and expectation transform itself into better performances.
Whilst I might be reasonably content enough as long as results are achieved, for a large section of the fan base it isn’t enough and the football style has to improve. And I think people are entitled to expect that. Our fans, especially the away support, spend money, time and effort following the team around the country in impressive numbers and to expect some entertainment is entirely understandable.
I think perhaps the crux of the matter is that we know we could be playing better. It doesn’t feel unreasonable with the resources and players at our disposal to expect that. We shouldn’t be settling for containing teams and grinding out a win. And unforgivably, that mentality is costing us points along the way.
If Bruce doesn’t adapt his style of play, then he is giving himself no room for error. A run of as little as two or three underwhelming results in a row will see the toxic levels rise through the roof; even after the Ipswich result, Twitter was awash with plenty of vitriol.
Of course, he still has his supporters. Seven points from the first nine is a good start on the face of it, certainly better than our previous stuttering starts. And it is hard to argue that he has only made progress in his time at Villa. And let’s not forget his ace in the hole; his win percentage is higher than any Villa manager in history that has taken charge of 100 or more games (not that he has reached the particular milestone himself yet).
Personally, I don’t think the current situation is sustainable though, and it is a case of sooner rather than later for Bruce. The supporters ultimately have the final say and with growing unrest amongst the fan base, much of which stems from the indefensible tactics employed in the playoff final, it will take some turnaround by Bruce to repair the rift. That will only be done through an improved style of football which is continuous for more than one or two games. And I can’t see that flexibility in Bruce’s skill set.
What sums it up most for me is that there is a feeling of settling for what we have rather than what we could achieve. Yes, Bruce is a steady manager who will get us there or thereabouts. It might not be thrilling all of the time, but sometimes along the way, it will be. Maybe most of all, we should be grateful for what we have after our summer of uncertainty because, it could be much, much worse.
That’s true of course. But it doesn’t mean that we should be afraid of pushing onwards also. Bruce has done his job in steadying the ship and we should be grateful for that. But if we’re looking to really push on, I have serious doubts that Bruce can grab this division by the scruff of the neck and take control and lay down markers.
The game against Brentford will go a long way to answering many questions. Lose, and Bruce will be under real pressure already. Lose whilst sitting back and letting them play through us and it will be a definite push towards the exit door. It could be one of Bruce’s most defining matches of his managerial career.