The G, B & U has been on a bit of a hiatus after being a three-year regular column on My Old Man Said. While it’s unlikely to be back as a weekly column due to Tom’s new job and life, we’ll hopefully have him share his thoughts on a monthly basis.
Not much has happened at Villa Park in the last three months. Well, there was that sacked manager. Oh, and the hiring of his replacement. Also, the 10-game winless run. The emergence of a new goalscoring hero. Tony Xia’s perpetually active Twitter account. The remarkable return of Gabby Agbonlahor.
Alright, so a few things have happened. The first third of the season has brought almost every emotion imaginable for supporters. Here is a look, in reverse order, of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of what we have seen so far.
‘If [Kodjia] can stay firing and the revival under Bruce can be continued when action resumes, Villa’s slow start to the season is more than salvageable.’
It is one which thankfully appears to have ceased in the last few weeks, but by far the most worrying aspect of Villa’s play in the early weeks of the season was the way that we collapsed like the pound in the final minutes of games. For a period of nearly two months it became feared, even expected, that we would concede whilst holding a lead.
To put in context just how bad a trait it was, six of the nine goals conceded in our first 10 Championship games of the season came in or after the 81st minute – i.e., essentially in the final 10% of matches. You would know, deep down in your gut you would just know, that no matter how in control we would look, an equaliser was coming. It was getting so bad that after a while you were starting to consider whether a petition to reduce the length of football matches to 80 minutes would get enough signatures to reach parliament.
Over the course of that run, those six late goals conceded cost Roberto Di Matteo’s Villa nine points, as they mainly came in the form of late levellers. To look at it one way, had Villa have been more resolute in the closing stages of games, we could be comfortably third now.
You can blame it on the players’ frailty under pressure, the attack’s failure to put games beyond doubt, or Di Matteo’s lack of proactivity in defending a lead with his substitutions. Whatever or whoever labelled responsible, however, it was a tendency that has left Villa desperately behind the race, and one which ultimately cost Di Matteo his job.
That habit of conceding late on was the ugliest part of what was a wider trend of misery in the opening two months of the season. After the grounding and eye-opening defeat to Sheffield Wednesday on the opening day of the season and the horrific defeat to League Two Luton in the EFL Cup, a 3-0 win over Rotherham United in the first home game of the season gave hope that our adjustment period was already over.
However, what soon became obvious was that that win was a result of Rotherham being utterly abject rather than Villa’s transition to second-tier life coming to an end. Via the late-goal narrative, Di Matteo’s side then embarked upon a nine-game winless run. That came despite having led until the closing moments against Huddersfield, Nottingham Forest, Brentford, and Barnsley.
Of course, that consistent failure to win brought further complaints, chief among which were criticism of Di Matteo’s team selections and substitutions. The Italian manager looked to be being handed a reprieve by Tony Xia until the dreadful 2-0 defeat to Preston on the October 1st, which unsurprisingly proved to be the trigger. Di Matteo’s failure as Villa boss was a shame, but evidently apparent, and kudos should go to Xia for having the stones to take decisive action early on – although it is easy to say that in hindsight, given what has followed.
Steve Bruce’s appointment was met with either approval or apathy, depending on which Villa fan in the street you asked. However, in the view of this author, he is the most qualified man for the job in a long time – arguably since Martin O’Neill. Bruce is not a foreign gamble like Remi Garde or Gerard Houllier, and neither is he a domestic one as Tim Sherwood and Alex McLeish have been in recent years. He has the experience and the track record to bring stability to Villa Park.
Though his first game was something of an anti-climax with a home draw against Wolves, he then masterminded back-to-back victories against Reading and Fulham, and a draw with Blues and win over Blackburn have made it an unbeaten 11-point start from Bruce’s first five games.
It was a shame not to beat Blues, but in derby games avoiding defeat is as important as going for the win, and the draw prevented momentum being lost.
Villa have been hugely improved under Bruce across the pitch. The former Hull boss is getting the best out of players such as his former centre-back at the KC Stadium, James Chester, and midfield anchor Mile Jedinak. Such has been the turnaround over the last month that Villa went into the international break just five points off a play-off spot, an unthinkably small margin four weeks ago.
One man whose individual form has dovetailed with Villa’s rise under Bruce is Jonathan Kodjia. Villa were laughed at for splashing £11 million (possible rising to £15m) on the Bristol City striker, but the Ivorian has scored five goals in five games under Bruce and has been Villa’s stand-out man in recent weeks. If he can stay firing and the revival under Bruce can be continued when action resumes, Villa’s slow start to the season is more than salvageable.
SEASON SO FAR AWARDS
Manager of the Season (so far) – Steve Bruce. An award only introduced last season after the revolving door was installed. Think Bruce’s 11 points in five games slightly overshadow Di Matteo’s 11 in 11, here. Sorry Rob.
Player of the Season (so far) – Jonathan Kodjia. Inconsistency has been the name of the game for many of Villa’s players, but Kodjia looks at the top of his game now and, barring an injury or total loss of form, the 27-year-old looks a good bet to get to 20 goals this season – firepower on which a promotion push can be based.
Result of the Season (so far) – Reading away. Bruce’s positive substitutions paid off as Jordan Ayew won and converted a last-minute penalty less than a quarter of an hour after coming on. Villa’s 2-1 win was their first away victory in 14 months and gave the club and players confidence, and has proved the catalyst for their resurgence.
Follow Tom on Twitter – @tdnightingale