Aston Villa’s dreams of an unlikely appearance in the Championship play-offs extinguished a fortnight ago with a 1-1 draw at Burton Albion
The fact that Villa fans were even harbouring hopes of getting into the top six after such an awful start to the season is a tribute to the galvanising effect that Steve Bruce has had at the club.
Some dreadful summer recruitment combined with the grave error of appointing Roberto Di Matteo put Villa on the back foot this season. Bruce was not blameless himself as he oversaw a nine-match winless streak in the New Year but he has since steadied the ship and going into that Burton game, Villa had won seven of their previous eight matches.
Bruce has achieved a 1.5 point-per-game average since taking over, compared with Di Matteo’s 0.9, but improvement is needed as he must now face a formidable statistic – only one team that finished bottom of the Premier League has ever gained promotion within three years after, they failed to bounce back straight away (Sunderland in 2004/05).
While there is confidence around Villa Park that the 2017/18 season will mark an end to what will be looked back upon as two to five years in footballing hell, it must not be taken for granted.
Here are five factors that will prove decisive in their promotion quest next season.
Keeping Jonathan Kodjia
The Ivorian forward has been a revelation since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations. Villa were ill-equipped to deal without him and the now departed Jordan Ayew as they embarked on that miserable run after Christmas. Kodjia is the fifth top scorer in the Championship on 19 goals, but at the age of 27, Villa fans will be nervous that the striker may not wish to spend another year in the Championship, with the likes of Everton and Stoke rumoured to be interested. Bruce says he expects the £15 million man to see out his four-year deal (he’s just eight months in) but also acknowledges that if a huge offer does come in, every player has his price.
Improve Away Form
Villa were relegated from the Premier League last season but they are likely to be among the favourites with bookies like Betsafe to secure promotion back up to the top flight if they can improve their away form. Had Bruce been in charge at Villa Park from the first game of the season and maintained his points average, Villa would currently sit in third place.
While Villa’s home form still needs some improvement (currently 8th best in the league), automatic promotion would appear mainly to hinge on a drastic improvement on the road. The club sits 17th in the table on away form, having won just four times all season. This is a statistic that will have to improve markedly when August comes around. Villa won two of their three away games in March and Bruce will be keen to continue in that vein come the start of next season.
Return of Strong Defence
Villa’s resurgence has been built primarily on the goals of Kodjia and the meanness of their defence in recent weeks. Since the 2-0 defeat to Newcastle on February 20, up to Easter, the defence has conceded just two goals in nine games and kept seven clean sheets during this time. The games against Reading and Fulham, where Villa shipped six goals, are hopefully a blip in the overall picture for Villa.
The back four of Alan Hutton, James Chester, Nathan Baker and Neil Taylor (with Jedinak shielding them) had been solid over the last two months and Bruce will want to keep those strong foundations in place.
Add Quality In Transfer Market
Yes, Villa have already spent big, but Bruce will not be resting on his laurels. The likes of Henri Lansbury and Scott Hogan were brought in in January and should prove major assets in the promotion push next season. But Bruce will know that he needs to further strengthen the goalkeeping position, a midfield that has been one of the team’s weak points this season, and also further bolster the attack.
If Bruce maintains setting out his team with a defensive frame of mind, Villa must acquire the players to allow them to counter-attack effectively and with speed.
The Villa boss says there will not be major changes, but two or three quality additions to take the squad to the next level are essential.
Support From The Stands
Things are looking good on this front. Owner Dr Tony Xia reported that 1,800 season tickets were either sold or renewed last Friday. According to Xia, the club is on course to surpass the 20,000 total of this season.
Considering the quality of football on display, that will be pleasing news for the Villa board.
It is vital that Villa finish the season strongly and invest well in the summer to inspire others to get behind the team. The club will be among the best supported again in the Championship next season and this will be crucial in driving the team on in a marathon 46-game season.
Certainly fans need to be organised and galvanised in creating increased vocal and visual support for the promotion push, with achieving promotion even more important for the club next season.