BBy Kris Woodward
The Ex-boss Man
Despite getting Aston Villa to within 90 minutes of the Premier League and generally giving fans the most exciting season of recent times, Steve Bruce’s sacking earlier this season, after a poor start, was justifiable.
Bruce was not at the club to build legacy and rebuild the club back into a Premier League force. His remit was simple, get promotion from the Championship.
While the circumstances at the club over the summer were volatile, you could argue that Brucie didn’t help himself by sending out Jed Steer and Tommy Elphick on loan, weakening Villa’s defensive set-up, when they only had one fit centre-back (he had been playing Tuanzebe at right-back) and a completely untried replacement goalkeeper.
It’s safe to say Bruce’s risk didn’t pay off. Neither Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna or young, French centre back Harold Moukoudi completed a move to Villa Park, with various reasons for deals stalling. Further still, Orjan Nyland took some time to settle in, making notable mistakes and costing Aston Villa some vital points.
It wasn’t until Villa-fan Dean Smith’s appointment were these blatant and unjustifiable mistakes were dealt with, with both Jed Steer and Tommy Elphick called back from their loan spells early, as well as bringing in reinforcements in terms of Tyrone Mings, Kortney Hause and Lovre Kalinic.
Also, Smith started to provide Villa with some actual identity on the pitch, rather than have the club talk up the vague notion of the ‘Villa Engine’.
However, Smith isn’t completely out the woods yet. He also fell into a similar trap with the goalkeeping position. Some may argue worse than Bruce’s.
Aston Villa aren’t in a position to ‘splash the cash’ or even be as wasteful as they have in recent years, yet it was Smith’s first piece of business to bring in the reported £7 million pound Kalinic, only to later realise Jed Steer is perfectly capable (at this level anyway).
Needless to say, it’s early days for all of Villa’s keepers in terms of being Villa’s number one, so fans will have to withhold judgement and see how the goalkeeping situation pans out.
Villa’s recent win against Blackburn Rovers, briefly saw them climb as high as fifth place. Whilst the win wasn’t as comfortable as recent weeks, it was good to see Tammy Abraham get back on the score sheet, as well as John McGinn and Jack Grealish continue to put on stellar performances in the midfield.
Whilst Bristol City’s win against fellow play-off hopefuls, Middlesbrough, saw Villa slip down the table, they remain in the play-off spots.
Despite patchy form, Derby County returned to action with a convincing win over Rotherham United. Whilst their 6-1 victory lifted them into 6thand no doubt improved their goal difference, they still remain behind Villa with on both points (1) and goal difference (-8).
Despite this, Derby do still have a game in hand and a relatively soft run-in.
Whilst Villa hold onto sixth spot currently, it’s worth noting that there is only four points between 10th(Preston – 57 pts) and 5th(Bristol City – 61 pts). Villa won’t be the only club with their eye on one of these spots.
Villa’s superior goal difference may prove as good as a point though, so at least they currently hold that trump card.Embed from Getty Images
Brucie’s Resurgence Reality
One club who have an outside chance is Ex-Villa boss Steve Bruce’s Sheffield Wednesday. Currently sitting 11thwith 56 points, Wednesday are unbeaten under Bruce and suffered their last league defeat on the 12thJanuary.
Whilst this sounds impressive, this is made up of five wins and six draws with only two of these games being played against a team in the top half of the table (1-1 draw at Derby, 0-0 draw against Sheffield United).
The majority of these fixtures have been against teams fighting relegation and include the five clubs in the bottom six positions: Ipswich, Rotherham, Bolton, Millwall and Reading.
Sheffield Wednesday play-off hopes
Whilst the fixture list was kind to Bruce, it now seems to take a turn for the Owls. With the exception of QPR on the final day of the season, six of their remaining seven games are against teams above them in the table. This includes games against Leeds and Norwich back-to-back, as well as a Bristol City side more than capable of pulling off decent results in their search for a top six finish.
Should Wednesday beat Aston Villa at the weekend, they would close the gap to just one point. This would no doubt boost their confidence and play-off hopes, but with their remaining fixtures and the other teams in the race, it’s hard to see them extending their season by an extra two/ three games come May.
Wednesday’s Stand Out Performers
Once one of the hottest prospects in the Championship, Fernando Forestieri has only scored four goals this season and assisted one. Injuries have restricted him back to only 12 starts in the league, making seven appearances from the bench.
Wednesday’s leading goal scorer this season is veteran striker Steven Fletcher, notching up 10 goals and 2 assists in 34 appearances.
Leading the way in assists for Sheffield Wednesday is Villa old boy Barry Bannan. With nine assists and three goals this season, he’s arguably been one of The Owls most consistent performers this season.
Another reliable player this season has been Adam Reach, playing 38 out of their 39 league games this season. The versatile 26-year-old has accumulated eight goals and seven assists from a variety of different positions, including left-wingback and right-wing.
Villa’s Play-off March
A win against Sheffield Wednesday this weekend will see Villa’s impressive run extend to six wins on the bounce and extend Dean Smith’s unbeaten record against Steve Bruce, when he was Brentford boss and Bruce was at Villa.
Taking it one game at a time is football’s biggest cliche, but it’s certainly a mindset Villa have to adopt to keep their focus in the run-in. They just have to keep beating what’s in front of them, and worry their destiny, if it’s a result of their week-to-week endeavour in the run-in.
The longer the winning runs continues, the less pressure there will be on Villa’s final two games against Leeds and Norwich.
This weekend Villa’s main play-off rivals have winnable games, so in terms of keeping in one of the play-off pole positions, their tricky trip to Hillsborough will be one of Villa’s trickiest tests in April to tackle.
Additional words: David Michael