As Glenn Whelan stepped up to take a last minute penalty to potentially steal a barely deserved 3 points at home to bottom of the league Preston, the feeling in the ground was one of a tenure that had reached its bizarre denouement.
One kick from a man with one goal in 7 years, and no history of being a proficient penalty taker was the lingering freeze frame that came to define an era that had grown stale. The tame miss at the finale of a chaotic match subsequently signalled the acrimonious, yet not unexpected finale for Steve Bruce as Villa manager.
In truth the match became a perfect microcosm for what we had become under his management. We have been left as a team of decent individuals with no evident collective identity, no natural leaders, going through the familiar motions and tactics that had repeatedly been proven ineffective in a Championship which has passed Bruce by without so much as a backwards glance. We have become a team stuck in the dust trail and rear view mirrors of teams with clearer ideas, philosophies and forward thinking methodologies, whilst we’ve plodded along trying to make the successful tactics of yesteryear work with sprinklings of individual talent and good old huff and puff.
I bear no ill will towards Steve Bruce, he’s always worked hard, and continued to do so through some very challenging times in his personal life in recent times. He has done all of this with an admirable dignity, but the club’s issue is a footballing one and in that regard we have ceased to work effectively any longer. The football world has shifted rapidly over the past decade, and at some point the future comes to claim us all; you either choose to keep up or decide that you’ve reached the level you’re happy with and make your bed. Bruce has come to do the latter, and for all the talk of his admirable promotion record, the football world doesn’t stand still on past achievements. You’re only ever as good as your last success and unfortunately, given the huge resources and envious playing talent available, Bruce has been unable to replicate those past successes. We have become a talented team playing yesterday’s football in a modern arena. We have become an anachronism in Bruce’s mould.
One could point to the success of Cardiff last season as a signal that the old ways aren’t dead yet, and that’s true, they were a very effective unit, but modern football is increasingly about identity, philosophy and long term focus, and if we’re being honest, out of last season’s Championship successes, who is more likely to be looking forward to a bright and continuous future in the top flight? The rudimentary grafters of Cardiff or the dynamic and stylish, future focused Wolves? Bruce got us close last season, (90 minutes away in fact) playing his brand of dependable, honest, “put a shift in” football, but ultimately it was no match for a savvier Fulham side who showed us the direction Championship football has gone in.
The best teams have a style, an identity, a philosophy; and those things shouldn’t be viewed as alien buzz terms or fancy new football hipster lexicon. They are precisely the things that give you something to focus on, a default by which to set yourselves out when games become tough. A philosophy and style gives every player a knowledge of their role within a collective unit and builds a focused team on the same page. I don’t know that we’ve ever properly had that in recent seasons, and when the going has got tough we have all too often come up short because of it.
When we went down to ten men on Tuesday, I (and likely a large number of Villa fans) could tell anyone watching, with some degree of certainty, what would follow. We would retreat ever deeper, cede possession entirely and invite the opposition (despite their lowly status and fragile belief) onto us until the inevitable result of forfeiting the two goal lead would occur.
It wasn’t pessimism that drew that reaction but just a learned consciousness. We have come to expect it and any opposition would certainly know they could exploit our penchant for imploding under duress. It is of course exactly what happened, we nearly staged a miracle comeback, but it would have been just that: some miracle moment out of nowhere. We’ve become all too dependent on those moments to paper over the cracks of poor performances and collective weaknesses. The frustration that erupted after the inevitable equaliser and even more inevitable goal to put Preston in front was just the crest of a wave that has been building and building for quite some time (not that it warranted hurling vegetables).
The future can still be bright, albeit we now find ourselves standing on the precipice of a hugely significant moment for the new owners to make sure that future happens. Whoever they hire now is an assertion of the direction they want to go in. Identity and philosophy should be key components in their decision, we need fresh ideas and a new footballing ideology to begin being implemented to truly build a successful future plan. There can’t be any short-termism in this hiring, we need a coach hired with due diligence towards their footballing methodologies and tactical nous going forwards.
Whoever comes in will inherit a team that in recent weeks have become increasingly confused by erratic tactical changes and personnel selections; a use of too many players out of position, leading to woefully disjointed performances, with players not seeming to be on any collective wavelength. All of those aspects need to change quickly if things are to turn around for us. The fact that, as of writing this, we sit joint fourth in goals scored this season is a testament to the individual talent we possess in this team, and what could be achieved by a coach who has a recognisable plan and philosophy to utilise these strengths.
Our defensive problems are clearly where our issues lie, we are in the bottom six for our defensive record, but that is further testament to our not having an obvious plan. The best teams build from the back, with their strength lying in a solid shape and focus that their defense lay as a foundation for the attackers to thrive upon. Last year we had that, due in large part to the significant influence of John Terry. This season we lost all of our centre backs bar two, and even then we have often only used one recognisable centre back in position whilst ‘Project Jedinak’ has inexplicably been allowed to continue. This was arguably the biggest and most damning indictment of Bruce’s failing tenure and it’s the hardest initial challenge for any new manager to overcome.
Good coaches are out there, even if we’re not all immediately au fait with the names (ask Wolves fans how many were championing Nuno Espírito Santo after Paul Lambert left?). With the right tweaks and a coach able to implement a focused change to our footballing methods on the training ground, we can reap positive changes quickly. The owners seem to have a hiring strategy in place and are seemingly thinking this through in a very considered and diligent fashion, and that can only be a good thing in my mind. This is a crucial moment for Villa and for Sawiris and Edens; Villa have had too many ill thought out hirings over the last decade, and we can’t afford a repeat of those mistakes. This hiring can, and shoud, be a statement of intent, after all, it’s about time we reclaimed the tarnished motto of the Lerner era, “Proud History, Bright Future.” I’m for that.
Whilst you’re here we would appreciate it if you checked out the latest edition of “The Villa Filler Podcast”; “Almost was never enough”. Linked below!