“You can have as many strikers on the pitch but if you keep making individual errors, it makes little difference.” – Steve Bruce
“Overall, I got it wrong with my changes,” admitted Steve Bruce, last week, reflecting on the 0-0 draw with Millwall. The Villa boss was referring to the dropping of Conor Hourihane to favour Henri Lansbury, who had scored the equaliser against Leeds in Villa’s previous game, after coming on as sub.
It wasn’t the first time this season Bruce had publicly doubted his own judgement, and a week later, Bruce again was thinking out aloud after the Derby loss, as he questioned his decision to not select a recognised striker; preferring Joshua Onomah in a more advanced role.
“In hindsight you could say maybe I should have started one of them [strikers] but I decided to go the way we did,” said Bruce, about deciding not to pick Scott Hogan or Gabby Agbonlahor.
The Villa boss is nothing if earnest in his approach, but at the same time, ultimately this increasingly frequent public doubt will not serve him well in the long run in the face of critical Villa supporters.
The openness to his own decision making is often juxtaposed with this constant rhetoric of how tough the Championship is and how good all Villa’s opponents are. For example, Bruce described Millwall as “very decent” despite the fact they had failed to win a single one of their ten away games before coming to Villa Park.
The league is more open than ‘tough’. Teams like Wolves and Cardiff, were both struggling with potential relegation last season, but a few months later they are dominating the division in the top two places.
Why not Villa?
It’s a division where fortunes can change sharpish, if you knuckle down and get on with it, rather than offering up mental barriers and managerial indecision.
Villa have spent big in the quest for promotion and they’re not going to get much sympathy if they come up short.
Shouldn’t Shoulder the Blame
Back to Bruce’s hindsight reflection on his own decisions, ultimately it would be harsh to chastise him too much over both the Millwall and Derby decisions.
Henri Lansbury over Conor Hourihane in the name of rotation to freshen things up, isn’t exactly an eyebrow raiser. The issue is more how Bruce plays them and what role he gives them in the midfield.
In terms of not playing with a straight-up striker against Derby, in some respects you can see why Bruce did it. Hogan and Agbonlahor’s contributions since Bruce has been at the club have been few and far between.
Plus, they were both coming back from injuries.
“Gabby has been out for eight weeks with a calf, he has trained around eight or nine days,” explained Bruce. “Scott has had the same sort of thing.”
Player Error Buck
Villa’s downfall against Derby was ultimately the shocking amount of elementary horror-like individual errors. Robert Snodgrass, Mile Jedinak, Conor Hourihane, James Chester and most notably Glenn Whelan, were all guilty during the game.
While Sam Johnstone saved Villa’s blushes in the personal error department against Millwall, despite keeping the score down against Derby, he was powerless to prevent the result.
Bruce admitted the amount of errors was a new low for the team.
“We made so many, especially the first 20 minutes. I can’t remember us making that many all season.
“When we analyse it, we’ve huffed and puffed but we’ve gifted them the game, really.”
“You can have as many strikers on the pitch but if you keep making individual errors, like we did in the first half, it makes little difference.”
The significance of Villa’s fixtures in December was they were very likely to determine whether Villa would be an automatic promotion candidate or a play-off team at best.
Unfortunately, at moment, we’re the later.