‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doing…’
“The social media dinosaur thing will be coming out and ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ but, look, I have been out of this league four times,”Steve Bruce protested as his Aston Villa side collapsed to a 4-1 defeat away at Sheffield United.
It was unclear who Bruce was most trying to convince with these words, his critics or himself.
Bruce’s decision to echo Jose Mourinho’s recent boasts regarding their previous achievements has helped, not hindered, the perception that he is yesterday’s man.
In the summer, Bruce made the rather astonishing claim that he was ‘starting again’ as Aston Villa manager and he appeared to want to distance himself from his previous project which centred around a collection of older players with experience of winning promotions and titles. In January 2018, when Aston Villa seemed to have turned a corner in terms of performances, Bruce had praised his own recruitment of experienced players such as Glenn Whelan,
“I think the experience showed. The big players performed. It’s the reason they are here with me. They have the experience to handle the expectation.”
Following Bruce’s failure to deliver promotion last season and the arrival of new majority owners Nassef Sawiris and Wesley Edens, he has now sought to reinvent himself as someone who believes in young and hungry players.
“We have to be a bit younger than we were last year – when you look back, too many of the squad we had put together last year was on the wrong side of 30. So we need a bit more freshness, a bit more legs and a bit more energy.”
For a manager who claims to know what he is doing, Bruce gives a wonderful impression of someone who does not.
In two years as manager of Aston Villa it is impossible to say what Steve Bruce truly believes in, how he envisages his team playing or what exactly he had in mind with his (now more than twenty) signings.
Little is gleaned from interviews with Bruce in terms of tactical sophistication other than the somewhat basic instruction, “All I ask is they (players) put their boots on, roll their sleeves up and give it a go.”
Admirers of Bruce have praised his honesty in interviews, though many of Bruce’s most revealing comments, such as his remark that ‘I’m not really into tactics’, when he was Sunderland manager, affirm what many of his critics believe. That he is a man without a plan, who is struggling to stay afloat in the ever-changing landscape of the Championship.
Unfortunately, Steve Bruce is perhaps the most obvious symptom of a club which has for too long had no direction, no plan and no obvious identity.
In respect of choosing managers, it perhaps doesn’t need to be said that a club that starts a manager search with Roberto Martinez and ends with the appointment of Alex McLeish is lacking direction.
Some managerial appointments have been populist demands from fans such as Paul Lambert (who fans wanted to replace McLeish), plus short-term appointments to avoid relegation or appointments made at the wrong time with totally the wrong squad of players.
Aston Villa have struggled to keep pace with our former, similar-sized rivals such as Tottenham and Everton and since Randy Lerner became Aston Villa owner the club has been making losses every single season when almost every Premier League club has been making profits.
The continuous mismanagement of Aston Villa almost resulted in administration this summer along with heavy FFP penalties, but the club was thankfully saved (at least temporarily) from this embarrassment by a change of ownership and additional investment.
Have we learned from our mistakes, or by continuing with Steve Bruce have the new owners given him licence to gamble again on promotion?
Much has been written recently about ‘philosophy’ managers following the success of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp in the Premier League and the way they have shaped the identity of their clubs according to their own individual styles.
To a lesser extent, Leeds have begun the process of modelling their club in the image of Marcelo Bielsa after they engaged in protracted negotiations with the Argentine coach to secure his appointment.
Leeds decision to appoint Bielsa was of course a risky one, given his recent history at clubs such as Lazio and Lille, but it was an imaginative appointment which is so far paying off. Leeds currently sit at the top of the Championship as we head into the international break, having played an eye-catching brand of football under their new coach.
The flag-bearer of pragmatic football, Jose Mourinho, has of course suffered a dent in his reputation in recent years and Steve Bruce, who claims to be Mourinho’s biggest fan, was on hand to lend support to his friend at a recent game at Old Trafford where Spurs thrashed United 3-0.
Pragmatists can find no strength in numbers right now it seems, and the pattern of pragmatists being replaced by philosophy managers also saw Sam Allardyce replaced at Everton by Marco Silva. Silva suffered relegation with Hull, moved clubs quickly from Hull to Watford (where he was sacked) to Everton but was nevertheless appointed by Everton because they believed he had a vision they wanted at their club.
I hope that Aston Villa’s new Chief Executive, Christian Purslow, follows this example by removing the pragmatist Bruce and replacing him with a coach who has a clear philosophy such as Oscar Garcia.
I know the arguments from Aston Villa fans who would prefer other managers,
“Well, ok, Garcia won league titles with RB Salzburg and Maccabi Tel Aviv but couldn’t most managers win a title with one of the big favourites?”
Isn’t that exactly what Aston Villa do need now though?
Someone who can handle the expectation of winning? Someone who can make a good squad of players play up to their level and win a league? If it was as simple as fans think then why hasn’t Steve Bruce managed to claim one of six promotion places available in the past two seasons with such gilded squads at his disposal?
Bruce certainly failed miserably with the promotion favourite last season and has thus far had another poor start to this season where Aston Villa look far from being one of the favourites.
In respect of Garcia’s title at Maccabi Tel Aviv, this wasn’t such a foregone conclusion anyway. He was invited to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv by Johan Cruyff’s son, Jordi, and he won the club their first league title in 10 years. Israeli newspapers commented at the time, “He took a depressed club and infused it with new life. He took a club that had collapsed and returned it to its former glory.”
In terms of working with young players, Garcia previously coached Barcelona U19’s and played an attacking 4-3-3 system with players such as Gerard Deulofeu, Rafinha and Mauro Icardi. Garcia won only the second treble in the club’s history, at that level, with his young team and was promised a position as Barca B coach but the promise was broken by incoming Barcelona President, Sandro Rosell.
Garcia moved to Brighton in 2013, who had been playing in League 1 in 2011, before their promotion to the Championship. Although he was given no money to spend, only loans and free transfers and had the 13th most valuable squad in the league that season, Garcia finished in the play-off places, losing to Derby in the semi-final. Garcia helped develop Jesse Lingard (on loan) and Solly March (youngster at Brighton) in his season at Brighton and they are both now Premier League regulars.
Had Steve Bruce made the play-offs with Brighton under similar circumstances, I am certain his supporters would have hailed this achievement as a minor miracle. Bruce’s supporters still claim that a 13th place finish in the 2016/17 season was a laudable achievement as Aston Villa manager despite the club spending £90m on transfer fees.
Another argument against Garcia is the alleged ‘stability’ that Steve Bruce offers in comparison. Is this fair to say?
Bruce has made over twenty signings at Aston Villa in less than two years which is an unsettling ‘churn’ for any team. In addition, the club almost went into administration following his two successive failures to deliver promotion, which is not my idea of stability.
His team also has no stable identity on the pitch. Did the team that turned up at Bramall Lane look like they had a style or plan?
Garcia resigned from Saint Etienne, a Ligue 1 team, last season following disagreements with the board over their failure to deliver on promises made to him when he was appointed. Garcia then resigned from Olympiakos after joining them as the third manager the club had appointed in 2017/18. In retrospect, it wasn’t a good choice of club to manage at that moment and the eccentric Olympiakos owner has previously sacked some very good managers.
Whilst these recent appointments cannot be considered to have been successful, other clubs like Leeds and Everton have been prepared to look beyond a managers last job and be open-minded about what a coach could offer to their club in terms of coaching and ideas.
Aston Villa desperately needs a philosophy and direction. Why not try someone who has played for and coached alongside Johan Cruyff and who witnessed how Cruyff transformed Barcelona?
Pep Guardiola recently commented that many former Barcelona players who played for Cruyff had gone on to become successful coaches. Guardiola, also appears to be regard Garcia as a good coach, since he has recommended him for jobs in Spain in recent years.
Garcia joined Barcelona when he was nine years old and Johan Cruyff played an influential role in his career on two occasions by giving Garcia his Barcelona debut, as a player, in 1991 and inviting him to be his Assistant Manager, as a coach, at the Catalan national team.
“For me Cruyff was the most important coach to learn about football from with a very clear philosophy.”
Garcia also played for Sir Bobby Robson and Jose Mourinho when they managed Barcelona in the season after Cruyff left and he has clear ideas regarding how he wants his teams to play,
“I grew up with a very clear philosophy. I spent all my life in Barca. I like the style of attacking football, it’s the best style to win games. I love to study how to make the opponent suffer, how to make use of the qualities of my players, I have a passion for it.”
Guardiola, also appears to be regard Garcia as a good coach, since he has recommended him for jobs in Spain in recent years.
There are arguments, of course, to be made for other managers such as Dean Smith at Brentford. Whilst I like Smith and the football his teams play, he has never played for or managed a big club and has never managed a club who are expected to fight for the title.
In addition, the playing style has largely been the same at Brentford for the past decade. With a revolving door of managers and young players who arrive, play nicely and are then sold for a profit.
In previous years there have been populist calls from Villa fans for Gary Rowett (currently struggling at Stoke and not someone who generally plays attacking football) and Nigel Pearson (who was sacked at Derby after nine games following various dressing-room altercations).
For these reasons, I hope we avoid a ‘man of the moment’ appointment and focus on appointing an ambitious coach who has a vision to rebuild Aston Villa, properly, and prevent us from being the victim to the sort of gambling we’ve seen in recent years.
In addition, I hope the next Aston Villa manager will be someone whose tactical sophistication isn’t limited to asking players to,
“Put their boots on, roll their sleeves up and give it a go…”
Follow Shelly on Twitter here – @ShelleyOzzy
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