Three Championship clubs decided to replace their managers in the same week back in October. Cardiff City were second from bottom with only eight points from 11 games, so they brought in Neil Warnock to replace Paul Trollope. Derby County, who found themselves in 20th, having secured 10 points from 11 games, sacked Nigel Pearson and welcomed Steve McClaren back to the club. And Aston Villa, who were level on points with Derby but still had aspirations of a top-two finish, decided to wave goodbye to Roberto Di Matteo and bring in Steve Bruce.
All three clubs enjoyed immediate improvements. McClaren’s return to Derby proved to be an instant success, with the team winning eight of their next 10 league games. Warnock steadied the ship at Cardiff, who have won six of their nine matches in 2017 – including victories over Villa and Derby – as they have moved into the comfort of midtable.
Bruce was tipped to bring a revival at Villa and the former Birmingham City boss had a big impact initially. The club went seven games unbeaten, winning four, and looked set to launch an attack on the play-off places. However, since the turn of the year, the crippling fear that has cursed the team in recent seasons and under Di Matteo has manifested itself once again. Regardless of how many new players are brought in or who is in charge, Villa seem so lacking in confidence.
The team didn’t perform too badly under Di Matteo but the players didn’t have the mental strength or game management to cling on to promising results. Their early season was defined by conceding late goals. They dropped a point in the 85th minute on the opening day of the season against Sheffield Wednesday, and then dropped two points in draws against Huddersfield, Nottingham Forest, Brentford and Barnsley in the 86th, 87th, 88th and 90th minutes, respectively. They were often the better team for much of their games but lapses of concentration and late errors proved costly as they threw away leads under Di Matteo.
When Villa scored late winners at Reading and at home to Fulham in Bruce’s opening three games, it looked as if he had managed to instil a greater self-belief in the side, but that steadfastness has all but disappeared. In 2017 they have picked up just one point from seven games – the lowest in the Championship – and have a worse record in Bruce’s last 11 games (eight points) than they had under Di Matteo (10 points from 11 games). Calls for Bruce to get the chop too are understandable.
Villa face Newcastle and Derby in their next two matches and, if they fail to win either of those tough fixtures, their current winless streak in the league will reach 10 games, as well as potentially dragging them into a relegation dogfight. That eventuality should have been a near impossibility given the money they have spent and talent within the squad, so what has gone so drastically wrong?
Bruce has been quick to bemoan his side’s luck as well as individual errors. It’s true that Villa have started strongly in their last five matches – even in the 3-0 hammering at Brentford – but they have been unable to sustain their early threat and capitalise on their (half) chances. More than 23.5% of the goals Villa have conceded this season have resulted from individual errors, which is highest in the league by some distance – Newcastle, who are second guiltiest o giving away goals due to individual mistakes, are all the way down at 16%. The fact that Villa’s three goalkeepers this season have combined to make the second fewest saves (68) in the league points to three things: Villa’s defensive record in general isn’t particularly bad; they’ve struggled to solve a long-standing problem by not finding a goalkeeper who breeds confidence; and teams have been clinical against them.
Villa have lost their last four matches but the game that seemed to drain their confidence was the 2-2 draw at home to Preston before that run began. Having taken a 2-0 lead into half-time, they allowed Simon Grayson’s men back into the match. Villa have taken 32 shots in the opening 30 minutes of their last five matches and conceded just 12, highlighting that they are starting games well enough. However, they have taken 44 shots and conceded 47 in the remaining time in those matches.
Essentially, they run out of ideas, the intensity decreases and panic sets in. They have tended to resort to kick-and-rush football in the second half of matches under Bruce. They have played 972 passes in the first halves of their last five matches but only 837 in the second halves. Their confidence and creativity wanes – even though they have signed some of the Championship’s strongest attacking players.
Forwards Ross McCormack, Jonathan Kodjia and Scott Hogan all signed for a combined fee of well over £40m, while Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane – who had racked up a league high of 11 assists before he joined from Barnsley – were recruited to provide the creative energy in midfield. Villa’s players have scored from just 7.8% of their shots, which is a huge concern given the outlay on attackers.
Bruce’s side are not only seen as a real scalp but also as villains in this league. They have used their financial power to pluck some prized assets from other Championship clubs and have become a joy to beat for opponents. Three of their last four defeats been against clubs who sold Villa star players in January, results that have been particularly sweet for Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Barnsley fans.
The majority of Villa fans seem to be coming round to the idea that Bruce isn’t the man for this job. The supporters did not expect the new manager – who was considered a Championship specialist – to bring a particularly pleasing brand of football, but he was supposed to guarantee results.
However, now just seven points above the relegation zone and a monumental 19 adrift of the play-offs, Villa will be hoping they can secure their place in the Championship. With Newcastle and Derby to come their downward spiral seems unlikely to change quickly, which could leave the club in a previously unthinkable position.
The Guardian Sport