Perhaps the international football break came at the best possible time for Villa, perhaps it didn’t. On the one hand, there’s been a cooling-off period following that humbling defeat to Sheffield United; on the other, it feels a relatively long time since Villa played. So, there’s been longer to brood and fester about that result, which concluded the early season opening fixtures in disastrous fashion.
Suddenly, Villa’s points yield looks a lot less impressive. Wins over Hull and Wigan, and draws against Ipswich, Brentford and Reading left Villa unbeaten after five, But even then, there were worrying signs. Villa pinched a win over Wigan in the final seconds of injury time and nicked a draw against Brentford the same way.
You can spin it slightly differently if you prefer to and point to the fact that Villa dropped two points at home to Reading by conceding a 93rd-minute penalty. But the truth is that Villa first six matches have included three games against three of the current bottom four clubs – Hull, Ipswich and Reading. Based on that, a return of nine points is average at best, and the club’s league position reflects that: 12th out of 24 teams. Within a few short weeks, Villa’s promotion odds from the likes of Betway and other online bookmakers will have widened. Experience tells us Villa can’t afford to fall too far behind the league’s leading pack.
All of which means, we’re barely in the middle of September and already there’s a debate about the future of the manager. Deserved? Absolutely. Put to one side Steve Bruce’s oft-used tactic about Villa fans reacting with hysteria – a clever diversion designed, no doubt, to steer the conversation and the spotlight in a different reaction – and that the domestic season is still in its infancy. It’s too early? In terms of the 2018-19 campaign, yes, it is. But, in the context of Bruce’s time at the club overall, absolutely not. The manager is coming up to two years in charge at Villa. That gives more than enough of a sample to assess his work.
Is his time up? There’s a strong case for it to be. After all, Bruce has had two attempts at promotion and failed both times, with one of the strongest squads in the division. He’s also managed to rewrite a different version of his debut season, claiming his remit was to avoid relegation instead of pushing Villa into the playoffs (let’s remember, he took over in October of that season, and Villa eventually finished a bland 13th).
Last season, of course, he did guide Villa to the playoff final and can always stand by that. Had the ball run differently at Wembley, had Villa got the better of Fulham in that one-off encounter, Villa would be in the Premier League right now. Those with a more sceptical viewpoint might look at the fact that Villa were barely ever in the top two automatic promotion spots – briefly. After beating Birmingham, but then dropped out again within a few days – despite a squad that was, all in all, probably the best in the league.
Or, that on too many occasions, Villa dropped points to teams they really should have been seeking to dominate. The team were prone to inconsistency, and sequences of matches when they looked poor. Reviewing the season, there was never a more frustrating period than when Villa beat Wolves and Cardiff either side of losing to QPR, Bolton and Norwich.
And, let’s be honest, Villa stumbled around in the playoffs. They didn’t look like a team full of winning intent, scraping past Middlesbrough over the two semi-final legs and then blowing it in the final. Not for the first time that season, Villa allowed the opposition to get a grip on the game, take the initiative, scoring the first goal and then play the game out, comfortably.
With the group of players, Villa has, this is a team that should be more than capable of taking games by the scruff of the neck and getting them won. Not every time, of course, but Villa should be looking to dominate the majority of matches at this level. Not allowing Ipswich to claim a point. Not allowing Reading to come to Villa Park, and leave with a draw.
So, what of this current season, so far? Are Villa any better off? On the evidence of the opening few matches, no. After a disruptive summer, the club came out of the turmoil much better off than they could have hoped for at one stage. Villa kept Grealish, Chester, Kodjia, Hourihane and Hogan, and strengthened well. Two goalkeepers have come in, Axel Tuansebe has returned on loan. And the highly-rated John McGinn has added to the central midfield options. On top of that, Villa have signed wingers Anwar El Ghazi, Yannick Bolasie, and Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham.
In terms of the front six positions, that’s a promotion-winning squad, surely. A title-winning squad, even.
Defensively, Villa looks vulnerable and even Bruce’s biggest supporter must feel baffled at how a former centre-back – who played at the highest level – has overseen such a strategy. Villa needs a left-back, and don’t have one. Having seemingly given up once Joe Bryan chose to join Fulham, instead. Villa need a centre-back, to replace John Terry, who partnered Chester last season, but don’t have one. Bruce has, oddly, opted to pick Mile Jedinak at centre-back. He’s also allowed the only other senior centre-back in the squad, Tommy Elphick to join Hull on loan.
Unless Villa can snag a decent free agent, there’s a serious lack of quality options there, which could come back to bite Bruce. What Villa have, right now, is a squad that looks unbalanced, with a wealth of attacking talent and a dearth of defensive quality. If Bruce was a coach who embraces an attacking, open style of play, there might be more for optimism, but he is not. Is he the right coach to get the best from a group of gifted attacking players?
How much more time?
So, back to the original question. Should Bruce be given more time? In his favour, after a sticky start to 2017-18, Villa did pick up and got into promotion contention. Against, is the suspicion that in two years he’s failed to introduce any real style of play to the team, which looks as disjointed and unbalanced as ever. His transfer policy seems random, overloaded in certain positions and wafer-thin in others. While rivals such as Leeds and Middlesbrough already look to have a convincing rhythm to them under coaches who have been in charge for significantly shorter, Bruce’s strategy remains a puzzle.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Villa stuck will stick with Bruce for the next phase of games, in the flawed hope, he’ll show encouraging improvement, which means changing the way he’s worked for the entirety of his managerial career. Those games should decide his fate – Blackburn, Rotherham, Sheffield Wednesday, Bristol City and Preston take Villa into November, and Bruce really should be looking to win at least three of those.
If he doesn’t, he should go. And he won’t be able to say he hasn’t had a fair crack at the job of restoring Villa to the Premier League.