As the dust settles on the 2016/17 season that saw Villa finish well below expectations in 13th place now would be a good time to look ahead to a season that ultimately will be judgement day for Steve Bruce as Villa boss. It’s promotion or bust.
In an opinion piece, the Birmingham Mail last week enthusiastically endorsed the Villa manager and predicted that Bruce would ‘definitely’ lead the club to promotion in the 2017-18 season.
The headline read:
‘Steve Bruce WILL get Aston Villa promoted next season – definitely!’
Of course, we’ve constantly seen their attempts for clicks with capitalisation in their headlines before:
And we know, the cheerleading of Steve Bruce has been typical of the Birmingham Mail throughout the season, despite the reality of what has played out on the pitch and what the league table says.
It’s a big call considering only ONE team since the Premier League was formed has gained promotion back to the top flight within three years of relegation as the Premier League’s bottom side, after failing at the first attempt.
It’s fair to say, most Villa supporters expected to see more from Bruce. If he is transitioning Villa into a team capable of promotion, worryingly we’ve seen little evidence of it yet.
Still, automatic promotion, or at least promotion through the playoffs, would be welcome news to long-suffering Aston Villa fans who have endured years of dismal Premier League relegation battles and now the fresh experience of finishing in the lower half of the Championship table.
Is promotion simply now just a formality with Bruce next season, as the Birmingham Mail makes out?
We’d love to blindly believe it, but unfortunately, the journalist who wrote the article, has a history of opinion pieces:
(A few weeks later Di Matteo is sacked)
(A few days later Westwood is a Burnley player)
Using the original headings of the original ‘definitely’ article here’s a more rational take on why promotion is far from a definite occurrence next season.
When Steve Bruce was hired last October, CEO Keith Wyness and owner Tony Xia set out their vision for the club in the next few seasons. The idea was principally to achieve promotion from the Championship, gain stability in the Premier League (through avoiding instant relegation) and then push on to compete for the top six places and Europe in the following years.
Steve Bruce’s experience has long been cited as his main attribute as a manager, which it undoubtedly is. No manager has been promoted from the Championship more times than Steve Bruce. It is a statistic that younger managers cannot compete with, largely because most younger managers, such as Eddie Howe, who took Bournemouth up from League Two, haven’t managed in the Championship for four, five or even ten years.
Bruce’s unique accomplishment includes an obvious cause for concern however. Double promotions with Hull and Birmingham would not have been possible had those clubs not been quickly relegated again.
In respect of the Premier League, Hull and Birmingham City have shown that squads built by Steve Bruce have difficulty retaining their Premier League status more often than not. And that’s before considering his lack of success in taking any Premier League clubs towards the European places.
Cardiff City boss Neil Warnock, another recognised Championship boss in recent years, became the Bluebirds’ manager in the same week of October 2016 as Bruce did at Villa.
The Bluebirds were second from bottom, four places below Villa, but come the end of the season were a place above Villa. In comparison to Villa’s £75m+ spend this season, Cardiff City spent only around £2.6m. Warnock certainly spectacularly out-performed Bruce considering the resources he had to work with.
If Warnock was punching above his weight to gain a top-half finish with Cardiff, what was Bruce doing with Villa finishing in the bottom half? With 32 games to play, Villa were just five/six points off the play-off spots.
Bruce bought thirty players at Sunderland in two-and-half seasons in the Premier League, a large churn for any club, and many of those players failed to establish themselves in the first team.
Bruce was sacked after thirteen games and two wins in November 2011, having failed to get his team to gel. A similar experience, perhaps, to Tim Sherwood’s summer rebuild in 2015. One explanation given for Bruce’s failure to improve results since his Aston Villa signings arrived in January has been the fact the Bruce has never had this sort of money to spend before.
In fact, Bruce has actually spent a total of around £278m in his 19-year-career according to the website, Transfermarkt (all figures approx.) Roughly the same amount of money as Brendan Rogers has spent in the past ten years. Bruce’s total spend roughly works out at £14m per season, even allowing for the much smaller amount Bruce would have spent in the early 1990’s.
By way of a comparison Paul Lambert has spent approximately £83m in his career (£6.9m per season) and Sherwood £56m (£22m per season).
On a club-by-club basis Bruce spent £84m at Hull, £87m at Sunderland and £82m at Birmingham City and none of those clubs have secured themselves in the Premier League in comparison to clubs like Bournemouth and Watford.
Steve Bruce teams have never gained a reputation for attracting the interest of neutrals. A google search of the words, ‘Steve Bruce style of play’ will produce limited results and the man himself has never claimed to have a philosophy aside from hard work.
Following Bruce’s dismissal at Sunderland, the current Aston Villa manager was accused of failing to move with the times having claimed when he was appointed Sunderland manager, “I’m not really into tactics.”
Whilst it is claimed that Bruce will most certainly develop an identity for Aston Villa, in line with Steve Round’s “Villa Way” idea, past experience would seem to cast some doubt on this actually happening. The Guardian considered the identity of Bruce’s Sunderland team after two and a half seasons build and £87m spend in the following way,
“Always rather amorphous, if not downright scrappy, Sunderland’s high-tempo style lacked creativity, not to mention control, in central midfield. Unable to dictate play, the team frequently failed to press home early advantages.”
Sound familiar? The ability of a manager who relies on his ability to motivate is not in question. Tim Sherwood managed to avoid relegation through motivation, then struggled to implement an ongoing consolidation project.
Steve Bruce hasn’t shown the ability to improve teams year on year and in terms of tactics or style and his methods have appeared to be fairly old-fashioned. The Guardian went on to say,
“Arguably one of the principal reasons Bruce is no longer in charge at the Stadium of Light concerns his apparent inability to tweak formations or tactics during matches. Whenever a rival manager re-configured his system mid-game, Bruce invariably failed to come up with a countermeasure.
In recent months Alan Pardew, Mark Hughes, Roy Hodgson and, most recently, Roberto Martínez have all seemingly out-thought him as Sunderland dropped points against supposedly weaker sides they really should have beaten.”
Fans who had doubts when Steve Bruce was appointed can feel somewhat justified in their concerns having witnessed 35 games under the Villa boss this season. The style of play was never going to be Bruce’s big selling point but to be outplayed by much smaller clubs on a consistent basis supports the criticisms made of Bruce when he was fired as Sunderland manager.
The requirement of having Championship promotion experience to make playoffs also seems to have been – as Tom Fox would say – a false narrative. Rafa Benitez, David Wagner, Carlos Carvahal, Garry Monk and Jaap Stam have all done well this season and had no previous Championship promotions between them.
Unlike previous managers, Bruce also does not seem to have a large ground support amongst the fan base with many viewing Bruce as a means to an end – promotion. The current Villa manager has struggled to sell an idea of his team to captivate the fan base beyond pragmatism with the most consistent defence of Bruce right now seeming to be a desire for stability.
Although, stability means nothing more than giving him another season to get Villa promoted. It’s doubtful this stability will stretch for Bruce to a third season in the Championship.
Calls for patience towards Bruce normally begin with opinion pieces in newspapers or tweets from board members.
For this reason, Steve Bruce still has all his work ahead of him to prove to Villa supporters that he can achieve promotion from the Championship and stability in the Premier League. That is a definite.
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