By Thomas O’Brien
Villa fans were shocked and saddened as for the first time in a generation, this season’s campaign began in the Championship and it became clear they would now have to watch match highlights on Channel 5.
Moreover, they did not expect England’s second tier to be a challenge for the Villans, particularly after new owner Tony Xia spent £60m on new signings over summer.
Yet, after slipping down the table early on, despite the unbeaten start of new manager Steve Bruce, Villa find themselves a disappointing 14th in the table. What would have Tony Xia have thought of that, if he was told that’s where the club he just invested in would be standing with a third of the season gone?
Now is perhaps a good time to review the team’s progress so far and assess how realistic Xia’s promotion ambitions are this season, after starting well behind schedule.
Roberto Di Matteo was supposed to guarantee Villa automatic promotion by the end of the season and maybe even the Championship title. Yet, after only 1 win in 11 league games, patience wore thin with the Italian, as he left Villa fans concerned about the unthinkable, a possible relegation fight in the Championship.
Despite huge financial support from Xia, Di Matteo’s tactics were not working and players seemed out of shape, played out of position and struggled to see out games. There was little surprise or sentiment when the axe came.
New manager Steve Bruce immediately brought a practicality to the team’s approach across the board and his changes appear to be working dividends with the Club undefeated since he took charge. Bruce’s tactical changes have given team morale a massive boost, with Gary Gardner noting in a BBC interview “everyone knows what they’re doing now. We feel confident.”
Although the start of the season was bitterly disappointing and 14th place in the Championship is pretty embarrassing, Bruce is leading the club up the table (and he probably adds five to the score). Most importantly, Bruce has gained the support of the dressing room, with players giving their all week-in-week-out. Neither Remi Garde, Eric Black, or Di Matteo seem to have gained this level of support, as players commitment was questioned after almost every game prior to Bruce’s arrival.
The start of the season suggested that the defence had a lack of physicality and concentration to last the full 90 minutes, as they were certainly suspect in the last ten minutes of games.
Di Matteo set up his teams with little concern for midfield cover for the back-four, opting to crowbar as many of his attacking talent into the team as possible. Meanwhile several huge mistakes from new ‘keeper Pierluigi Gollini cost Villa points and perhaps put doubt in the defenders playing in front of him.
Bruce has made the defence central to his tactics as the team sits deeper and plays more on the counter-attack with more bodies in the midfield to cover and harass.
The last home win against Fulham was the team’s first league win while keeping a clean sheet since 13th August. Although fans certainly did not expect to be conceding three goals in a game to teams like Luton Town and Bristol City at the start of the season, the improvement under Bruce indicates that these results will go down as embarrassing early season jitters, rather than regular occurrences.
After a disappointing start the defence is rapidly improving. It’s possible that with both Tommy Elphick and James Chester being under six foot, the centre-back positions lacked presence. There’s certainly been an improvement and better durability since Nathan Baker came in for Elphick. The partnership with new captain James Chester seems to be working well and Bruce would be foolish to switch it anytime soon.
Under Di Matteo, the midfield had a lot of the ball but did very little with it and deserved the “right b********g” given to them by Steve Bruce. Under the new management, the midfield has used the ball as effectively as possible, creating goals in every match and for the first time since last season, unpicking defences away from home.
The extra man in the middle has helped, although they are no dominating games yet, as Villa maybe should be doing considering the summer outlay on players.
Fantastic performances from Mile Jedinak among others have made this progress possible. Jedinak’s performances show quality at both ends of the pitch, ranging from setting up last week’s winner against Blackburn, to vital defensive work against the Blues.
Admittedly, vital defensive work shouldn’t be necessary against the Blues, but performances such as Jedinak’s provide evidence of a team beginning to show increased resilience to be more successful in the Championship.
Rating – 6/10
Although playing with less of the ball than earlier in the season, the midfield is making their possession count and creating goals, giving Villa narrow wins and crucial points. Still, much improvement is needed in the middle of the park to become a true promotion contender.
The season began with hope that one of the strikers signed by Villa over the summer would become the reliable, prolific goalscorer that the Club has been lacking for so long. A 20-goal a season man.
Ross McCormack arrived from Fulham for £12m, but has yet to make a significant impact, with more yellow cards than goals so far this season. Villa only scored seven goals in 11 league games under Di Matteo. Scoring statistics like this had fans rightly demanding change at the Club. Steve Bruce has transformed the quality of the forwards, with the Villa scoring 7 goals in less than half the games of RDM’s reign.
Jonathan Kodjia has been leading this renaissance up front, scoring five of these goals, capitalising on chances that come his way in a clinical manner which the team was unable to match at the beginning of the season. While it’s nice to win games by more than one goal margins, the most important thing is to secure the win and that is what the forwards have been doing under Bruce.
Rating – 7/10
Recent drastic improvements in the form of Villa’s strikers have won crucial points and averted crisis for the team. There’s a feeling though for Villa to get promotion, they will need a 20-goal tally from one of their strikers and also for the likes of McCormack and Gestede to step up during the African Nations Cup, when Villa will lose it’s best striking duo at the moment – Kodjia and Ayew.
Player of the Season…Thus Far
Jordan Ayew – rating 8/10
While Jonathan Kodjia would be a more obvious choice, given the recent goal spree which has justified his transfer fee, Jordan Ayew has been a creative and driving force with four assists and two goals.
After pretty much all of Villa’s other signings from last summer let Villa down, the Ghanaian is the only one who has stuck around to be a pivotal force in trying to return Villa from whence they came.
Tommy Elphick was meant to be the captain figure on who’s back the promotion push would be built on, but he remains disappointing, as does Ross McCormack.
So far it’s Ayew and indeed Kodjia that give the club a flicker of hope for the rest of the season, in terms of the big ‘P’ word.
Prospects for the Rest of the Season
Adding to the team in January will be vital if the Villa want a top six finish and a chance of promotion at the end of the season.
A decent midfield who can dictate the game and make things happen in the final third would probably be top of the shopping list.
An experienced goalkeeper should be signed while Gollini continues to learn on the job, to give Villa an insurance policy in the position.
Moreover, with the African Cup of Nations taking place in January, it is essential that Villa sign at least one striker to cover for Kodjia and Ayew (maybe a loan), while McCormack needs to justify his £12m fee by scoring some goals.
By the turn of the year, Xia will know the state of his dream of immediate promotion. Nobody will be thinking about a second season in the Championship just yet, although you can’t help but feel it could help Bruce get his ducks in a row for a proper return to the Premier League with a more balanced and drilled team, that might be better in the long-run.
At the moment, you wouldn’t back the current Villa team to fare well in the top tier, so the development of the team in the next few months will be interesting. One eye will no doubt be on future-proofing the team for the Premier League, if Bruce brings home the promotion bacon at the end of the season.
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