Tony Xia’s revolution is stuttering badly. The original plan was simple – take what was seen as a good gamble buying one of English football’s bigger clubs in a cut-price deal, get it promoted within two years with the aid of parachute payment money and with promotion assured, then use the riches of the Premier League television rights money to re-energise the club, expand its fanbase in Chinese and international markets and also help bolster the kudos of the Recon brand.
Xia has certainly put the money into his gamble, whether it has been covered by parachute payments and player sales, the intent has very much been there. In fact, you couldn’t ask for more.
Villa have spent more in the two transfer windows than several Championship teams have in the entire history of their club’s existence. But when Villa recently played a prime example of such a team, Barnsley, it was clear to see such financial outlay doesn’t necessarily bring dividends on the pitch.
Other club’s supporters have referred to Villa has doing a Chelsea and Manchester City in the Championship. Considering Villa’s policy of buying some of the best players in the division, it’s fair comment.
Yet, instead of talking about promotion this season, Aston Villa are casting a nervous glance over their shoulder. After such a concerted effort in the transfer windows to build a team for promotion, now not to be in even touching distance of the second tier play-offs has to currently be considered a failure.
If part of rebuilding Villa was rectifying past mistakes like getting rid of the old ‘Bomb Squad’ and ‘Moneyball players’ of the summer of 2015, then the fact the club loaned out in January, £22m worth of the players they had just recruited in the last summer, suggests history is repeating itself.
Villa have had the financial backing, they have the players – a collection of Premier League and top-level Championship players – and they have so far this season enlisted the services of two managers who have a proven track record at Championship level.
A period of transition is to be expected, but with it should come hope and constructive steps in the right direction.
On paper everything looked good. The right steps have been made. So what has gone wrong?
Going into the season, perhaps there was an air of complacency about the club. After the investment, the Villa board expected promotion and so did the players. MOMS has seen DM’s from players from the start of the season where they were so confident of promotion, it was as if it was a given. The bookies and other clubs and their supporters also expected Villa to be a force this season at the top end of the table.
Logic dictates that after signing a number of marquee signings in terms of the Championship, like Mile Jedinak, Ross McMormack, Jonathan Kodjia and James Chester, promotion (or the play-offs at least) should have been nailed on. After all, most clubs at this level were lucky to be able to sign one such player, never mind a hatful of them.
Yet while Villa got the players, they didn’t seem to get a ‘team’.
Marketability After Practicality
It’s a badly kept secret that Nigel Pearson was the manager selected by Steve Hollis’s recruitment team, headed up by David Bernstein and Brian Little, if Lerner didn’t sell the club before the summer. Whether it would have worked or not – and you can argue both sides – Xia wanted a sexier option.
Roberto Di Matteo’s Champions League winning credentials proved too attractive, but the fact he had next to no experience of building his own team was seemingly overlooked. As MOMS pointed out previously, Di Matteo had constantly inherited ready-made teams, had initial success with them, but never lasted two years at any club.
He was certainly not the man for rebuilding a club to the extent of what Villa needed. If Villa needed stability, then Di Matteo showed very little on his managerial CV that he was the man for the job.
Xia’s decision to go for the Italian was his first costly mistake owning the club.
There was much talk from the owner, board and manager about building a new spine for the team. After all, it was very much needed. The likes of Tommy Elphick, Mile Jedinak and Ross McCormack were logical considering their previous experience, but Pierluigi Gollini and Aaron Tshibola were also being touted as part of that spin. That was puzzling.
At the time of signing, both players were 21 and between them only had 13 games of Championship and above experience in English football.
Sign them by all means, but splashing around £4-5m on each of them didn’t exactly represent good value for the immediate needs of the club.
As Bruce informed MOMS in a recent meeting, Villa had previously complied several scouting reports on Gollini over the years and they had generally came to the same conclusion – Don’t. Sign. Him.
Di Matteo went against this advice and not only that, made him his number one keeper.
As MOMS stated when Brad Guzan was sold, with the stakes so high, it was time to get a steady ‘7/10’ experienced keeper in simply to take no chances in the position. It’s not rocket science. If promotion is vitally important, you eliminate as many possible risks as you can. Not add to them.
The decision ultimately cost Di Matteo his position, as the seven or so points directly dropped as a result of Gollini’s individual errors would have surely given the Italian more time as the Villa boss.
Steve Bruce coming into Villa Park was seen as a logical choice by most and at worst, a necessary evil by fans who couldn’t see past his Bluenose history.
Bruce topped a list of 10 candidates collated by Technical Director Steve Round that was presented to the Villa owner. While it’s very unlikely Bruce would have got a chance if Villa were in the Premier League, his record of Championship promotion drowned out the doubts that some fans (including MOMS) had about his suitability of being a long-term Villa boss. His reported rolling contract seemed to suggest the Villa owner wanted to hedge his bets.
In terms of ‘horses for courses’, Bruce was the right choice though.
Initially, Bruce managed to bring an increased resilience to Villa’s play, the team grinded out results, but the performances were still poor and pointed to the limitations of what the team could do this season. Five out of seven of Bruce’s wins came against teams that were in the bottom six, before the start of play. When true tests of play-off potential came against the likes of Leeds and Norwich, Villa came up short.
Bruce though cuts a likeable figure to both the media and some sections of fans, who now preach that stability is the key and change can’t happen over night. Yes, stability always helps, but while the players have demonstrated little on the pitch, Bruce has increasingly shown little evidence of being able to improve matters.
There is no cut and dry formulae to turning a team around and the latest call for stability and patience may not necessarily bring the desired results, if the club continues down the same path.
Surely Bruce should have made more of an impact by now?
When Roy Keane came in as Sunderland boss after the 2005/06 season had seen the club relegated from the Premier League with just 15 points, he turned them into Championship champions the following season.
The best example of changing a team’s fortunes this season can be fond in Lincoln City. The team was languishing in non-league limbo for several seasons after relegation from Division Two, but new manager Danny Cowley refocused the whole club in the summer and now they are top of the National League and in the FA Cup 6th Round, having beaten four league clubs along the way.
With the right attitude and plan, quick turnarounds can be made. Most clubs don’t have the kind of financial backing that Villa have been privy to, to change their fortunes. Should Villa have done better? Yes. 100%.
Patience is fine, but there has to be purpose to it. But can we see this Villa team developing and evolving in each game? Not yet. Villa now have an expensively assembled team that is woefully underperforming and there is little sign that Bruce is impacting anything.
Bruce knows all the problems and some, but why is he coming up short in addressing them?
Will Bruce be the Villa boss next season?
The short answer to this is the Villa manager will have to prove himself in the rest of this season to keep his job. This is not even opinion, but fact. There is too much at stake for Tony Xia.
Roberto Di Matteo’s league record at Aston Villa was 10 points from 11 games. That earned him the sack. Steve Bruce’s record from his last 11 league games? 8 points.
If Villa were to play the same way next season, don’t expect apathetic supporters to gleefully flock to Villa Park. More importantly, Villa wouldn’t be going anywhere and would be left staring into a Championship abyss like Forest, Leeds, Wednesday and Derby have been in recent seasons.
Bruce has to demonstrate an improvement with the team and create some forward momentum that can be carried into the summer and onto next season. If this is not apparent in the next few games and weeks then the Villa board would be foolish not to weigh up its options going forward.
Yes, the chopping and changing of Villa managers doesn’t help and has even got boring. But the decision to whether Steve Bruce is Villa manager next season isn’t to be made now simply for the sake of stability. We all have to see legitimate evidence in the next few weeks/months to feel comfortable that it actually will be the right decision.
Considering the current form of the team, this season is pretty much a right-off, but the silver lining is Bruce does have the luxury of using it to experiment and seriously put his mind to addressing the problems the current team have.
Call it an extended pre-season with proper competitive match conditions. It can only be a positive thing, considering the series of inconclusive preseasons Villa have experienced in recent years trying to get their house in order.
The Villa boss surely now has the majority of the tools needed for the job of promotion he needs to carry out and, as they say, a good workman never blames his tools.
‘I am the man for it, I’ve got the stomach for it and the fight for it,’ said Bruce in his pre-Newcastle press conference.
If he’s true to his word, then there will be nothing to worry about.