You already know the cliché of new managers giving existing players at the club a clean slate when they come in, but three Aston Villa players in particular will be happy it was ‘Bruce Out’ and ‘Smith In’.
If you cast you’re mind back to the January 2017 transfer window, Villa busied themselves getting in six players to provide the foundations of Steve Bruce’s rebuild of Aston Villa. The Villa CEO Keith Wyness publicly said, that it was better to get them in now rather than wait until the summer window, as they’d have more time to bed in.
Alongside the loan of Sam Johnstone, the six new permanent members of the squad that came in during January 2017 were: Scott Hogan, James Bree, Conor Hourihane, Henri Lansbury, Bikir Bjarnason and Neil Taylor.
Fast-forward to the play-off final the next season, only one of the six players, Conor Hourihane started the game. It was proof that Bruce was buying the players, before even considering how they were going to be played. The former Villa boss never seemed to have a system.
At the same time, the Villa board seemed to be trophy hunting. Henri Lansbury was meant to be Nottingham Forest’s best player, Conor Hourihane was Barnsley’s and Scott Hogan was meant to be Brentford’s top man. Villa weren’t shy about this bully tactic of splashing the cash on the alleged gems of the division. Unfortunately though, not much thought was given to how they would fit in. And in the end, they largely didn’t.
The player that perhaps suffered the biggest misfit status under Bruce was James Bree. Villa’s former technical director Steve Round had stated that Bruce had made a point of personally watching the up-and-coming right-back play three times at Barnsley, before signing him.
MOMS personally shook the player’s hand to welcome him to the club, as he was at Bodymoor Heath to sign on the same day, the Villa Fans Consultation Group met Steve Bruce. At the time you thought, finally we are thinking about building a team for the short and long-term future.
It was hoped he was going to be the player that would put Villa back into the 21st Century in terms of the right-back position. Despite only being 19-year-old at the time, he had impressed as an attack-minded full-back in his half-century of games for Barnsley.
The player though never got a run of games at Villa, as Bruce stockpiled players that could play right-back. The final insult was getting utility youngster Axel Tuanzebe in on loan and then playing him at right-back. Tuanzebe himself wasn’t the finished article, yet Bruce was spending Villa’s money to develop a Manchester United player instead of one of his earlier purchases.
Bree was only going to get better with games, instead he found himself playing at centre-back in cup games and getting zero momentum going in the position he needed to develop in.
With Bree’s previous inclination to join the attack and link-up on the right-hand flank in his Barnsley days, incoming Villa boss Dean Smith may see him as a player to bed in sooner rather than later. On paper, at least, Bree would suit the more possession-based, quick-minded ethos of a Smith team.
It’ll certainly be interest to see if/when Bree makes a transition into the first team.
Bjarnason, while good enough to score against the European Champions Portugal and World Cup Winners France at international level, was criminally under-used by Steve Bruce due to the manager’s stockpiling of players in certain positions.
Bjarnason’s greatest asset is he is likely to pop up in a goalscoring position at least once in a game (no matter where he plays), as he reads the game well. MOMS stills bangs their head against a wall when remembering calling out at half-time at Wembley for him to come on for Jedinak in the play-off final against Fulham, when Villa were chasing the game at 1-0 down and showing very little going forward.
Smith may see Bjarnason’s running and ability to get into position, as a useful plus for his team. The question remains however, where does he play him?
Bruce’s DM’s were there principally for their defensive duties, while Smith has tended to use a deeper midfielder who is comfortable on the ball and has a range of passing to prompt his team going forward.
Getting the balance of Villa’s midfield right will be Smith’s first task, maybe Bjarnason will be a better team option than simply accommodating a big name? It remains to be seen.
No one was probably more surprised at what Aston Villa were willing to pay for Scott Hogan than Dean Smith himself. First of all, due to injury, the striker had only played once in the season Brentford finished 5th in the Championship, before Smith took over. In Smith’s first season as Brentford boss, he then only played seven times (although he scored seven goals in the process).
When Smith had finally got a fit Hogan firing, Smith would have been disappointed not to finish the season with him. After he left in the January window, the then Brentford boss must have wondered if the striker was going to actually flourish under Bruce (he scored once in 13 appearances during the rest of that season).
Hogan, who aired his frustrations under Bruce in last week’s press, will no doubt be delighted Villa can potentially transition into a style of play, that will get him more involved and utilise his sharpness and penalty box smarts.
There’s certainly still time for Hogan is actually repay his transfer fee, if he finally clicks.
Dean Smith’s Cookbook
As Bruce said in one of his recent post-match interviews, he had the players and now just needed a system to play them in.
It was approaching two years and the Villa boss still didn’t have a system? MOMS never saw much evidence of one, that’s for sure. He never found a way to play most of his January 2017 permanent signings.
The good news is though, based on what we’ve already seen already of incoming boss Dean Smith’s teams, he hopefully seems to have the recipe to get the best out the ingredients already at the club.
More Reaction to Dean Smith in the Latest MOMS Podcast