Aston Villa accept Steve Bruce's means to achieve the end

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 27 October 2017, 08:26

Having guided Birmingham City to four derby victories over Aston Villa in the early noughties, Steve Bruce will return to St Andrews on Sunday as a rival for the second time.

The ex-Manchester United centre-back will always retain a place in the hearts of some Birmingham fans. In six years at the helm, he led the club to two promotions from the second tier and in 2003/04, to a 10th place top flight finish, which remains the club’s highest position since 1973.

His more successful periods came when he worked with a group of grounded footballers, who gave their all for the shirt, mixed in with one or two who offered something out of the ordinary. Christophe Dugarry filled the latter role in the second half of the 02/03 campaign, before Mikael Forssell bagged 19 goals the season after.

Problems started for Bruce when, having seen his side finish six points off 5th in 2003/04, he tried to build a squad capable of challenging for a European spot, as outlandish as that might sound now. He began recruiting high-profile players, Mario Melchiot and Emile Heskey to name two, at the expense of honest workhorses who had brought the club success.

The hope was that Damien Johnson and Robbie Savage would have the tenacity to hold down the midfield, but after the latter left under a cloud in January, Johnson was the only player in that team who visibly cared. The lack of balance, combined with Forssell’s crippling injury, centre-back Cunningham’s decline and goalkeeper Maik Taylor’s loss of form culminated in relegation in 2006. Bruce successfully reverted to basics that summer, building a promotion-winning side on power, passion and leadership.

Those qualities have been the cornerstone of the good teams he has produced, including the 2012/13 and 2015/16 Hull outfits. After leaving the Tigers, the question was whether he could truly imprint his philosophy at Aston Villa. They are a club that, historically and culturally, demands more than just effort - otherwise, the chant ‘Alan Hutton: the Scottish Cafu’ would be sung without a trace of irony.

 

Initially, he re-organized the defence in B6 but his side’s use of the ball was poor: they scoring 39 goals in 38 games under his watch last season. This year, they have scored 19 in 13, more than Cardiff and Sheffield United. The style of play hasn’t changed as much as the confidence with which it is applied.

Keinan Davis, although not yet the most accomplished goalscorer, holds the ball up more effectively than perhaps Scott Hogan or other expensive forwards. Equally, John Terry is arguably on a par with Nathan Baker as an individual centre-back, yet his orders are heard from the stands. Terry acts as a useful mouthpiece for Bruce and somebody players will listen to and respect due to his vast experience in the game.

The 36-year-old scored his first goal for the club in last week’s 2-1 win over Fulham, a match which saw Villa have just 32% possession. The likes of Robert Snodgrass and Albert Adomah, attack-minded wingers, were positioned close to the half-way line, highlighting that the methods are getting across.

Although Villa fans aren’t delighted with the style of football the manager has introduced, most accept the means to achieve the end, which is promotion. Whether Bruce can guide Villa to the Premier League - and whether the two parties are a natural fit - are two different questions.

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