‘Amongst the many complaints directed at new Aston Villa owner, Tony Xia, on Twitter the lack of good football is rarely, if ever, mentioned’
Change in Philosophy
Watching Barcelona breeze past Manchester City 4-0 left me wondering how Cruyff turned the club around when he became Barcelona manager in 1988. One of the most important factors was Cruyff’s ability to educate fans and make them believe his way would bring success.
As ex-Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, once said: “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it”.
Barcelona fans used to be happy to whistle sideways passes, shake white hankies and shout “forward!” until Cruyff’s revolution changed the club forever. Barcelona fans now view football in a different way and whilst they still grumble at misplaced passes or mistakes they no longer demonstrate an impatience to get the ball forward.
If you visit the Camp Nou you will see that moments of brilliance are greeted with gasps of genuine joy from fans along with the satisfaction of watching a team play, frankly, magnificent football.
Now, Aston Villa are currently miles away from Barca, but upon buying the club, new owner Tony Xia did make the claim he would make Villa one of top three teams in the league.
A sad indictment of where Aston Villa are as a club right now is that the real spectacle is less what happens on the pitch and more what happens in the stands, on social media or in fan or pundit reactions.
Steve Hollis was mocked relentlessly for his use of the word ‘customers’ but in some ways that is what following Aston Villa has become at the moment. It’s more about the buzz phrase ‘fan experience’ than actually enjoying the team play good football. Public relations gimmicks, post match fan and pundit tweets and hot takes on who is the better or more passionate fan are now common place.
In fact, amongst the many complaints directed at new Aston Villa owner, Tony Xia, on Twitter the lack of good football is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Whether the club has stocked merchandise in a particular size, whether the music being played in the stadium is to a particular fans taste, whether fans can get free tickets for a game or a just a retweet for their birthday, the game of football seems a minor event taking place in the background of noise.
A few years ago fans would spend days complaining about the boredom of either Alex McLeish’s or Paul Lambert’s stale football and lament the lack of quality players on the pitch. Recent complaints about bad football, however, are now drowned out by fan congratulating themselves on how loudly they sang or how many away fans travelled to support the team.
It’s fair enough, Villa’s away support is about all we have to be proud of in recent times, but have we just given up on the quality of the football?
Speaking of social media, it’s input has only grown since Aston Villa was bought by friendly and ambitious owner Tony Xia. Aston Villa’s new owner, like most successful business men, has ridden the wave of the current movement and is receptive to the demands of supporters regarding players and managers. Social media polls, Twitter reports and fan reactions all play a part in the decision making process.
It was obvious, for example, that the club was testing the water with leaks to the press regarding the intention to approach Steve Bruce. Keith Wyness admitted later that if the reaction to the idea of Bruce had been different, then the club may have taken a different path.
In much the same way Arsenal Fan TV became popular during a period when Arsenal were playing badly, the reactions of Villa fans has become popular during a lengthy period of bad football. Incidentally, you see less amusing rants from Arsenal fans now that their team has made a great start to the season. They are concentrating on playing good football again.
The high turnover of managers at Villa Park has also added to the customer led desire for instant gratification. Fans seem less receptive to a slow build and laying strong foundations and are needier for reassurance and comfort. This is why a ‘name’ like Steve Bruce arrived rather than taking a risk on a younger manager with a long-term philosophy. It is the equivalent of taking an old jumper out of your cupboard and settling down on your sofa and feeling warm and comfortable. You know what you are going to get.
Hopefully that is promotion, but what of the long-term?
Tony Xia’s willingness to listen to the fans was evident when quoted Mao Zedong in respect of having ‘faith’ in the opinions of the masses. The opinion of the masses last season was Moyes, then it was Nigel Pearson. This season it is Steve Bruce. Fans are notoriously fickle and the desire for a quick fix always trumps the desire for an investment in long-term success.
While he is flavour of the week after a good start to his Villa career, of the clubs Bruce has managed or got promoted to the Premier League, none of them has a secure footing in the Premier League now. Birmingham and Wigan remain in the Championship. Sunderland are balancing on the precipice of another relegation (if no serious improvement is made) and Hull, after a bright start, are now alarmingly sliding down the league places.
Which clubs have dug a foot hold in Premier League after gaining promotion and why was that?
Swansea were promoted to the Premier League playing attractive, possession football under Brendan Rogers. Swansea have scouted smartly in the years since their arrival in the Premier League and remain one of the lowest spending clubs prior to the club recently changing hands. Managers like Michael Laudrup followed Rogers into the Swansea hot seat and were able to fit into the same model playing a similar style of football without having to rip it all up and starting again.
Furthermore, Bournemouth were promoted to the Premier league under Eddie Howe playing fast, pressing, passing football and he has sustained the club in the Premier League and recruited cleverly with players who easily fit into his system. It is a model that works.
In respect of Aston Villa’s long-term plan it appears that Keith Wyness pledged that Steve Bruce would be at the club long-term. Of course, Bruce has had little time to implement his ethos on the team, so it will be a few weeks until we see what that is.
However, there are some schools of fans though who believe as soon as promotion is secured Bruce will be fired (hence Bruce’s rolling contract) and a new coach with more modern tactics will be recruited to compete against the likes of Pep, Jose and Koeman etc.
However, how easy will it be to do is this in one summer with a high turnover of Premier League standard players joining and Championship level players leaving? Will Keith Wyness and Steve Round be lucky enough to find a coach as good as Pochettino like Southampton did? This remains to be seen. The current buzz words are ‘Pride, Passion, Purpose’ but should they be ‘Planning, Planning, Planning!’
Building the club to sustain itself long-term in the Premier League won’t just be about how deep Tony Xia’s pockets are. The real goal is create a sustainably good level of football which can be used in the Championship as well as the Premier League, which can last longer than relying on one manager (we await Steve Round’s role in this – detailed in point 12). We have had high spending boom and bust years before under Martin O’Neill and so have Sunderland. Both clubs have failed badly in recent years.
While promotion is the priority this season, the club and fans should still not neglect the standard of football being played and we should always demand a quality of football for our enjoyment and also as a means of having a healthy, functioning club who will have the best chance of finding stability in the Premier League in the long-term.
Aston Villa’s chapel became a ruin in the last few years but it will take more than a lick of paint to properly refurbish it. The club needs to lay strong foundations.
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