Is it time for Aston Villa to replace Steve Bruce?

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 03 September 2018, 09:41

Steve Bruce deserves credit for his past achievements in the Championship - and for getting Aston Villa back on an upward curve at an uncertain time.

Partly but by no means entirely because of Saturday’s 4-1 loss at Sheffield United however, there is evidence to suggest that his tenure in B6 may be running it’s course.

Here’s five reasons why it might be time for change.

1. Targets not met

When Bruce was appointed in 2016, he was given a very attainable brief of delivering Premier League football to Villa Park by the 2018-19 campaign.

He inherited a squad that had undergone a £60 million spending spree when Tony Xia first took over then, in his first full season, was given the backing to sign John Terry on big wages, then bring in the likes of Sam Johnstone and Robert Snodgrass on loan.

The squad he had was more than capable of promotion. It might seem harsh for the 2017-18 campaign to be defined by one play-off final performance against Fulham, but equally, when the race for the second automatic promotion place opened up, Villa never grabbed it.

On results alone, Villa have failed to meet the objectives set and Bruce should take a lot of responsibility for that.

2. Unsustainable relationship

At the beginning of last season, a return of one point from a possible nine prompted a tirade against Steve Bruce; to an extent, he deserves credit for turning results around as quickly as he did under so much pressure.

While fans were thereon largely content to persist with Bruce due to his promotion record – four in four consecutive full seasons as a manager at this level before 2017-18 – it always felt like a marriage of convenience rather than romance.

Managers who won automatic promotion last season – Nuno Espirito Santo and Neil Warnock – both won over supporters very early on in their reigns and when results go well, the manager has the adoration of supporters.

While the atmosphere has been good after big home wins, Villa fans never truly embraced Bruce, so when results go awry, concerns over the bigger picture come to the fore.

Can a successful football team with that friction lying under the surface?

3. Imbalanced defence

Last season, James Chester was arguably the best centre-back in the Championship; he read situations immaculately and kept a cool head in tight areas. This season, that player has made way for a nervous wreck who is too slow to defend his box and, when he does, makes costly mistakes like giving away the late penalty against Reading.

The problem is that while Chester was excellent alongside John Terry, who compensated for the Welshman’s weaknesses with aerial dominance, he has struggled when asked to carry a back-line containing Mile Jedinak as an auxiliary centre-back. It is painfully obvious that the Aussie is not at home in central defence yet keeps getting the nod. Villa are overburdened with five potential right-backs - four if we treat Ahmed Elmohamady as a winger – but only one obvious centre-back by trade – two if we count Axel Tuanzebe – and only one natural left-back with right-footed Alan Hutton as an alternative to the defensive Neil Taylor. Bruce has allowed his defensive options to become incredibly lop-sided – is it any wonder they have shipped 11 goals in six games?

4. The Championship has changed

Bruce’s plan for promotion – which he did twice with Birmingham and twice with Hull – was to build a defensive side and hope that one player produces a moment of quality to nick a narrow win.

That has half-worked at Villa. Jack Grealish is capable of controlling games single-handedly and they normally have a set piece specialist – Robert Snodgrass last season and John McGinn this year.

The problem though is that other managers have overtaken Bruce by building a more coherent identity that suits the players.

Recent seasons have seen Bournemouth and Wolves win titles with a clear playing identity. Although Burnley and Cardiff employed more agricultural methods en route to promotion, they have looked more comfortable in their own skin than Villa do now.

Bruce has had 18 months to shape his squad and it is still unclear as to the direction he wants to take them. His side lack the confidence to execute possession football effectively, yet they lack the pace to become a counter-attacking side and the bravery to press with vigour every week.

That would suggest that the ability of individuals is making up for the absence of a coherent plan; and by extension, that Bruce’s methods are not necessarily helping the team, but perhaps holding them back.

5. New owners, new ideas?

Nassif Sawiris is the current chairman, but he wasn’t making the decisions when Bruce was first appointed. In fact, he took over at Aston Villa very late in the summer with no time to implement any on-field changes; the fact he initially decided to keep the current manager at the helm reflects the pre-season turbulence more than it vindicates Bruce.

Christian Purslow is the newly-appointed CEO – although part of his role will be to negotiate contracts, one would have to wonder if bringing in somebody with that role would be deemed necessary were change not afoot. It seems very plausible that Purslow might have his own ideas on the people he wants leading the club and current performances will hardly dissuade him from opting for a re-think.

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Graham Westley
Graham Westley
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