Aston Villa Season Preview: is Bruce the right man?

With the 2018-19 Championship season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Aston Villa fan Richard Dalton (@ContactCounts).

It has been a challenging summer for Villa, starting with that play-off final defeat to Fulham which led way to various financial and ownership issues. Do you think Tony Xia’s hunger for success hindered his preparation for failure?

Xia definitely wasn’t prepared for failure and he definitely gambled. It’s suggested he has invested 150 million and he was investing around 5 million each month just to keep the club running, from the outside looking in I genuinely feel he’s fallen in love with Villa and is devastated we didn’t secure promotion. He trusted Wyness, Round and Bruce as experienced figures and all of them failed him; having said that he owned the club so ultimately the buck stops with him. He has recently sold 55% of the club and reports suggest we now have the 3rd richest owners in English football; maybe long term 24 months of failure might lead to more success. I think the next 12-24 months with FFP issues looming will tell us if the gamble had a detrimental effect or not.

With a glass half full I’m positive the new owners credentials will see us return to the EPL within next 2 years. The new owners have experience within sporting industry in the west which will be a big advantage over where Xia started.

It appears that fans are divided on Steve Bruce. Are you grateful to him for improving the spirit around the place last season, or sceptical of his defensive tactics?

The new owners have decided to stick with Bruce, at this time. I understand the reasons and it’s probably the safest decision to stabilise the club in the short term although I’m anti Bruce and I would personally have looked to replace him immediately.

He seems to have local and national media support and some of the articles I read in the press are laughable. The spirit improved greatly last season but all insiders will give as much credit to John Terry as Steve Bruce. I think Bruce is a fair man manager but he’s awful tactically. We cannot pretend Bruce had a difficult job he had a squad full of internationals on EPL wages, the most expensive squad ever assembled in EFL, he failed to deliver good football and more importantly promotion.

Watching Villa under Bruce is so frustrating, when we pressed high up the pitch and committed players forward we looked very good this happened consistently in Jan/Feb after a poor December. We were 2nd after beating Birmingham and again right in connection after beating Wolves in March. Bruce then reverted to the negative defensive approach that had seen us struggle during 2016/17 and for most of the early part of the season.

He then continued with this in the play offs. The Fulham first half was an embarrassment; the biggest game in our history and we let Fulham a team that love to control the ball and dominate possession dictate the tempo, it was typical Bruce so tactically inept. Bruce wont survive long term but its imperative that we appoint the right coach with a playing philosophy to take us forward longer term.

Loanee Robert Snodgrass has gone back to West Ham while uncertainty lingers over the futures of Jonathan Kodjia and Jack Grealish. Just for their ability to conjure up something out of nothing, will it be important to keep hold of one of the latter two?

Snodgrass gave his all last season and did produce moments of quality but no more than you’d expect given what he was being paid. Grealish and Kodjia are both EPL players ability wise, Kodjia was outstanding in 16/17 and Grealish even more so during late 2017 into 2018, both need to be retained and with new owners it looks possible. I genuinely believe Grealish is an international in waiting, maybe needs to add a few more goals but the rest of his game is top level. He’s technically fantastic and very brave in possession. I wont forget the last 2-3 months of 2014/15 season where as a 19 year old he produced numerous MOTM performances in big games, for his career he should move to Spurs if he get the opportunity. The issue if they stay is how does Bruce get the best from them both, I’m certain that the defensive long ball tactics we have endured for 2 seasons is not the best way.

There’s a section of Villa fans who are excited at the prospect of the youth academy being utilized more this year. Can we expect to see more of attacking youngsters such as Andre Green, Corey Blackett-Taylor and Callum O’Hare?

We have an excellent crop of young players in our U23s and I’d love to see more involved. During the past 2 seasons I’ve seen Bruce show no faith in any young players and in all honestly I’m not sure he’s the coach to bring them on, the style of the U23s is completely different to the first team. I expect Bruce to stick with experience and our talented youngsters will continue to get limited minutes.

Sam Johnstone was arguably the best shot-stopper in the Championship last season. With him returning to parent club Manchester United, will Jed Steer or Mark Bunn get a chance in goal?

I hope Steer is given an opportunity he’s looked decent in the limited minutes he’s had. I do however expect someone to come in probably on loan.

John Terry has left the club this summer but, at the time of writing, the indications are that key man James Chester might stay. Do you hope that will give you a semblance of stability at the back?

Chester has been our best player for last 2 seasons it’s imperative we keep him. If we sell him that would contribute almost nothing towards FPP so it’s pointless unless he pushed for a move which is unlikely.

Full-back Alan Hutton did an excellent job on Adama Traore in the play-off semi-final against Middlesbrough. Is he the kind of character you’ll need next season?

Hutton gives 100% every game and for many villa fans that makes him a favourite but for me giving 100% is the minimum. Hutton is a poor defender tactically and positionally he really struggles, he makes last ditch tackles but that’s usually because he’s caught out in the first place. I much prefer De Laet or Bree at RB.

Neil Taylor appears a conservative left-back. If you have both him and Hutton as your full-backs, will you have enough width?

Taylor is a solid dependable performer and a much better player than Hutton. I think not having attacking full backs is down to Bruce’s tactics rather than the individuals.

The one area you look well stocked in is central midfield. Is Conor Hourihane’s place assured and if so, do you prefer Glenn Whelan or Mile Jedinak in the holding role?

All Bruce’s mates in the media will support his view that he hasn’t had any support in the transfer market and has produced on a shoestring which is crazy and our CM options show just that. We had far too many options last season and Bruce brought numerous CMs. I’d prefer Bjarnason as our holding midfielder he’s technically and tactically ahead of the other two and we played much of our better football the rare occasions he played. If possible it makes sense to move Whelan and Jedinak on.

In last year’s Q&A, you said you weren’t convinced by winger Albert Adomah. Did he do enough, especially during his November purple patch, to convert you last year, or is consistency still an issue?

I’m still far from convinced by Adomah but he did produce vital goals last season. He is very inconsistent still and that’s definitely something he needs to improve on.

Lewis Grabban’s loan has ended, Scott Hogan is injured and there’s no guarantee that even Keinan Davis will stay. Do you need an out-and-out striker?

Hogan is another player on EPL wages that Bruce wasted money on. I like him as a player but under Bruce’s long ball tactics he’s ineffective. Kodjia will be the number one striker with Hogan, Davis and Hepburn-Murphy that looks strong enough.

Villans aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

The EFL is such an unpredictable league Cardiff, Wolves and Fulham all went up with no parachute money. On the face of it Stoke and WBA look strong. Middlesbrough will be top 6 under Pullis but probably horrible to watch. Nottingham Forest will improve and I can see them going up with a shrewd manager and some good new additions.

Where will you finish?

As for Villa I suspect we will fail again and finish around 8th assuming we stick with Bruce. I don’t think villa should fail with such a deep squad full of internationals and players on EPL wages but under Bruce I just can’t see an improvement on last season and envisage a season similar to 2016/17.

Thanks to Richard for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Villa can be found on We Love Betting from 30th July.