Steve Bruce’s name rang around Villa Park after his 100th game in charge on Saturday, but he was not lapping it up.
“We want Bruce out, we want Bruce out,” sang a large number of Villa fans after the 2-1 defeat by Sheffield Wednesday, leaving them with 13 points from nine games in a league they are supposed to walk*.
Villa’s tepid start is close to turning disastrous as they travel to Bristol City on Friday night, live on Sky Sports Football via the red button. But should Bruce, a man with four promotions to his name, be shown more patience? Or is it time to start again?
Right now it surrounds the Aston Villa manager. But the debate around patience could relate to any of the 22 managers sacked from the top two divisions last season, or the 27 sacked in 2016/17, or the 32 in 2015/16, and so on.
You may have noticed that earlier asterisks. “Anyone can beat anyone” and “It’s the most competitive league in the world” are old clichés, but that doesn’t make them false.
Those who feel a top-six finish is their right should note 23 other teams feel the same, hence the regularity of back-to-back promotions, teams overachieving, underachieving and a weekly disparity in results. A quick reminder that Leeds, unbeaten and flying, were beaten 2-1 at home by winless Birmingham City on Saturday.
“When you are in the throes of it, it takes you to the highs on Saturday and kicks you in the balls on Tuesday,” Bruce said after one of those win-lose weeks last season. “It’s what the Championship is. I have said it many times. It is a physical endurance marathon.”
Bruce is right. The spread of quality is narrower than it seems, the churn of games means tactics can be futile and pure grit often gets you success.
That is why the Championship chews up and spits out managers. That is why the cycle of hope, disappointment and rebuild is its staple. Should Villa get on board?
It can work: Leeds may strike 15th-time lucky with Marcelo Bielsa, Slavisa Jokanovic did a quick fix on Watford a few years back, and Bruce did the same when he arrived at Hull.
But often it does not. Of the 21 clubs to make a mid-season sacking in the past two Championship campaigns, nine clubs have finished better off, on average by just 3.5 places. Six ended in the same position and six were worse off. It’s a fair spread, and it very rarely ends in promotion. But the risk and reward is clear, patience is thin and many Villa fans want the board to act.
Championship managers last on average 11 months, but the last nine managers to win promotion to the Premier League were at their clubs on average two years and three months before going up. Patience can pay.
Bruce is approaching two years at Villa – a decent stint in context – and though his current squad has a new core, it is among the league’s most expensive.
This, and other reasons, is why Bruce is under pressure. Villa’s top-heavy side do not entertain, and perhaps have not since he arrived. Even during a seven-game winning streak last season, the football was distinctly Championship. It was not free-flowing like Wolves down the road, or like Newcastle the previous season.
The question is, are they the standard, or a rarity in this muddy division? History shows plenty have succeeded opting for effectiveness over entertainment, but everyone wants value-for-money and complaints are valid.
Bruce got to within 90 minutes of the Premier League last season with his tough-to-watch yet operational football, helped by some quality and expensive loan signings in John Terry, Robert Snodgrass and Sam Johnstone.
Villa could not keep them, missed a tax payment and nearly fell into financial ruin. Every story coming out in the early summer seemed to edge them closer to oblivion, and some fans are just grateful they still have a club to worry about.
New owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens arrived, along with more quality and expensive loan signings. Jack Grealish and James Chester have stayed, noting Bruce’s influence on their development, but expectation is high again.
The 57-year-old does not hold back on the debate, and even hinted after last week’s win over Rotherham that fans will not fancy him, a former Birmingham City boss, whatever he does.
Bruce said: “No matter what I do, in some people’s eyes I’m not going to be the right fit. There’s nothing I can do about that. I will stay on the ropes and stay with it. The most intelligent people will see through all the nonsense and realise that we’ve got the makings of a decent team.
“In some people’s eyes, I will never be the answer. But a little bit of common sense is needed because unfortunately it filters through to the mad few. The vast majority of supporters are right behind what we’re trying to do.”
Given their defeat by Wednesday days later, he may wish he had held back. That, and the prediction that Fernando Forestieri would be a threat. Forestieri was suspended.
Results and performances have not been great; three wins in nine, with seven of their opponents currently sitting 10th or below. But Villa’s stats are up on almost everything compared with last season, and the players’ desire to work for the manager has never been doubted.
This, as many bosses will vouch, is huge. The purpose of a mid-season sacking is often to jolt players into working harder, but for Villa, that does not seem to be the core issue.
How Villa’s stats compare
|Average per game||2017/18||2018/19|
|Shots on target||4.41||5.00|
|Successful passes opp half||175||190|
|Aerial duel success||47.9%||51.6%|
This works in Bruce’s favour, as does the fact individual errors have cost them points. But so have an out-of-sorts defence and fidgety starting XI.
Mile Jedinak’s continued use at centre-back has baffled many. Bruce said last week: “I am convinced he will be a centre-half. He has been, in my opinion, unfairly criticised because results have not gone for us. I think I know what I am talking about with a centre-back.”
In fact, the difference in Villa’s points rate last season with and without Jedinak in defence is negligible, and they conceded less goals with the Australian in the back line. He may well turn out to be centre-back Bruce wants, but time is running out. His failure to bring in a defender lands on him given he took full control of transfer activity during the summer chaos.
Is Mile Jedinak a centre-back?
|Jedinak at CB 17/18||Jedinak in midfield 17/18|
|Points per game||1.86||1.95|
|Goals conceded per game||0.71||0.92|
There are other issues. New Norwegian goalkeeper Orjan Nyland has lacked confidence, Chester’s performances have dropped, and although the benefits of an obvious style of play are debatable in the second tier, Villa do not have recognisable traits.
This could all be down to circumstance, bad form, bad luck, or indeed bad management.
The ‘silent majority’ are difficult to quantify, but Villa fans seem split, and both sides have fair arguments. As with so much in football, there is no clear right or wrong, and the situation creates more questions than answers.
Is this a two, three, or four-year project? Will the summer signings gel? Is there anyone available to do a better job? And, crucially, should the fans help create a positive atmosphere and let the board decide for themselves? Creating atmosphere, after all, is one of few things football fans can tangibly control.
For now it’s down to Friday night in Bristol and beyond that, the patience of the owners.
Watch Bristol City v Aston Villa on Sky Sports Football via the red button on Friday evening at 7.45pm