I rarely welcome international breaks but with so much chopping and changing at Villa Park this year this week has been a welcome respite. However, it is hard to shake the feeling that this temporary break may stutter Villa’s current momentum.
Steve Bruce has made a huge impact on Villa’s fortunes since his arrival, that is beyond a doubt. Villa are finally on an upward trajectory and although this is a positive thing there are also several lingering issues that are yet to be resolved.
This week is the perfect opportunity to assess what the new boss has changed for the better, and what he still needs to improve to get the team firing on all cylinders.
Change is Good
The most obvious and important change that Bruce has made since his arrival is getting wins on the board. With the situation we found ourselves in little else mattered. As well as remaining unbeaten to date, Bruce has Villa picking up wins and moving up the table. Single points from games is fine on occasion but without three point hauls we were going nowhere. Thanks to the new boss, Villa fans are experiencing the joy of winning regularly for the first time in years.
Bruce has brought about a change in mentality and character within the squad. This has been a key factor in wins, and in the momentum that they have brought. ‘Losing mentality’ was becoming somewhat of a mantra in commentaries about the club’s fortunes over the last few seasons and Bruce is putting that phrase to bed.
For a painfully long time Villa have been prone to collapse at the first sign of difficulty. Under the new man, Villa are not only seeing off opponents but even coming from behind to win. That’s a far cry from conceding goals and surrendering points in the final minutes on a weekly basis. Long may it continue.
Knowing The Score
In my opinion the most comforting thing that Bruce has brought with him is a clear understanding of what’s happening on the pitch. Under Di Matteo there was no game plan and both team selections and tactics were baffling at times.
Bruce has had a much more balanced approach and hasn’t been afraid to leave players on the bench when necessary, regardless of reputation or price. For the most part, Bruce has also used players in their natural positions, although with numerous attacking options and a long season there will continue to be some flexibility here.
For the first time in McGrath knows how long, Villa are also making logical substitutions. Bruce has made several substitutions that have changed games and each is made for a tactical reason, proving that Bruce is seeing the same things as the rest of us. Di Matteo, Lambert, Sherwood and the rest could learn a lot from this.
When the season kicked off Villa and it’s new recruits looked set to be on the road to recovery but the former boss failed to get the best out of key players. Now Villa’s under performers are finally showing their talents.
Jedinak has grown in stature in recent weeks, as displayed by his sublime assist for Kodjia last week. Gollini is full of confidence and Baker and Chester have looked a far more solid unit than Tommy Elphick, who just hadn’t shown the quality we hoped for. This list of improvers could go on (Amavi, Gardner, Grealish, Adomha, Kodjia), but the message is clear, Bruce is getting the best from his players.
Last season there were almost no players worth getting attached to. This year there are finally a few characters at the club who may become fan heroes, and that’s what the game is all about.
One former hero who has fallen from grace is Gabby Agbonlahor. For better or worse he’s back in the squad. The local lad has been given yet another ‘second’ chance.
If he can rediscover his best form he could be a useful squad player in the Championship and can certainly help restore the teams identity. With his return comes several questions and doubts. This leads to my next points, the things that Bruce has yet to improve, or facilitate.
With Change Comes Uncertainty
It would be ridiculous to say that Steve Bruce isn’t doing a good job, but it’s early days and there are plenty of ways the team needs to improve. We are seeing the new man make his mark, several big decisions will determine the shape of the squad come the end of the season.
While Gabby’s return has been mentioned, as a potential positive it’s also hard not to feel like his presence is hindering the inclusion of some of Villa’s younger talents. Agbonlahor’s place in the squad looks set to further limit the opportunities of our brightest prospects such as Andre Green and Rushian Hepburn Murphy.
Even at the end of last year’s disastrous campaign the gradual emergence of these players and the likes of Toner and Lyden, showed some hope for Villa’s academy. Bruce’s preference for using experience to steady the ship is understandable, although with the team on the mend, I would personally prefer one of these future stars on the bench that Gabby.
At the end of the day, a win is a win is a win. That said, with the squad at Villa’s disposal they should really be dominating and controlling more games in this division. At the very start of the season, Villa were in control of games and just hadn’t clicked in terms of goal scoring.
As the season went on this stopped being the case. I’ll take three points over a moral victory any day but there’s no reason it can’t be both on occasion. If Bruce can add this to his impressive start than Villa really could be in with a shout at promotion.
Early Report Card
So far so good under Bruce. A third of the way through the season and the positives are certainly outweighing the negatives. Villa are in a decent position and, provided recent form continues, have a lot to play for.
If Bruce can develop some young talent, improve Villa’s control of games, and make the right signings in January, then Villa may well be back where we belong next term. Should recent successes prove to be down to a ‘new manager bounce’, then it could still be a long season for the Villans.
Steve Bruce’s November Report Card: B+ (A Lot Done, More to Do)
What do you think Steve Bruce’s best and worst decisions have been so far? Are Villa heading for promotion? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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