It has been 6 months since a leafy green sphere came flying out of a disgruntled stand at Villa park and whistled through the cold air, only to narrowly miss its target, Steve Bruce. And in many ways, this incident is an incredibly fitting metaphor for Bruce’s time at the club. Cabbages are, by all accounts, a pretty boring item of food; they are not exciting or spicy, sweet or sour. To borrow a phrase, they are simply ‘there or thereabouts’ in a lot of dishes and are supposedly beneficial to health in the long term. You can see where I am going with this… Apart from the cabbage itself, the throw also encpasulates much of Steve’s reign. Much like Bruce, it was reliant on an individual stepping up and acting (just this time it wasn’t Kodjia or Adomah), and much like our two seasons under him, the end result was a near miss.
From the tone of this article so far, you may have assumed that I was always against Bruce and never supported him. That is not the case. When he was appointed I was reasonably pleased and I continued to turn a blind eye to the frequent fairly dismal displays of negative football because we were obtaining a reasonable amount of points. I wanted him to go after the playoff final, but, on far better terms and with far less animosity than previous sackings like Lambert.
However, my indifference towards Bruce changed drastically over the summer and continued into October. Anybody who has taken an informed look at our summer financials (simply search for @yorkshireavfc on Twitter) knows how close this club came to financial ruin before the takeover. The fact is that when Bruce was at the helm we gambled. This has worked at other clubs like Bournemouth, QPR and Leicester, but they broke the rules prior to new and harsher regulations. We needed promotion, and yet finished 5 points off 3rd and 7 off of 2nd. To make matters worse, Fulham only played for half the season and 2nd place was filled by a Warnock managed Cardiff squad that can only ever be described as bang average. Additionally, we did not even play exciting football, we consistently set up defensively and tried to defend one goal leads. This left as at odds in the playoff final when we were forced to attack and resulted in our eventual defeat.
Perhaps the most annoying feature of Bruce’s tenure was the myth of stability and the way that the media worship him. He may be a nice bloke, but coverage of Bruce is bordering on the onscene. Journalists are supposed to report football as it is, not insult fanbases and ignore reality in order to preserve their good relationship with a manager. Just this week, Alan Biggs of the Daily Star has come out with an article so out of touch, that it could have been written from Westminster. Here are some of the ‘highlights’:
“His crime was six weeks of moderate results in an otherwise impressive two year turnaround of a club who were still competatively placed when the axe fell”
“There is very little neutrality abouth Sheffield Wednesday versus Aston Villa in the nation’s consciousness”
“Bruce’s treatment by a section of Villa fans was disgraceful”
For the full article (and a lot more laughs) follow this link
At the time of his sacking, we were sat 12th in the Championship. We had a squad littered with talent, Bruce has enjoyed 2 years to shape a team (spending more than the leagues regulations allowed when making it) and yet we were sat in the bottom half of the table. He deserved the sack and fans were well within their rights to dislike his football and call for a new manager.
In order to prove this point, I will now analyse the changes that we have seen since Dean Smith came in and show that Biggs has the wrong end of the stick. Saturday is not a tale of good vs bad, saturday is football against anti-football and under Smith we are anything but the latter.
A Long Term Approach
Thankfully, we finally have a long term approach to Championship football that will see us seek promotion without risking a 145 year old football club in the process. Dean Smith’s loan policy means that we will not loan anybody in the future without an option to buy. This is a fantastic victory in the face of the dangerous short-termism of Bruce’s tenure and means we will not invest our time and resources into players without having an option of gaining the long term benefits. This is already looking like a wise decision; with Hause and Mings endearing themselves to the Villa faithful who would be delighted if they came to B6 permanently.
In terms of youth, players like O’hare and Hepburn Murphy have finally been sent out on loan to get experience of proper men’s football and, hopefully, to come back all the better for it. Meanwhile, it has been fantastic to see Green make the team recently and even Jacob Ramsey making the squad on a few occasions. A long term and successful approach to the Championship requires clubs to improve their own players and not just splash out millions to solves problems. This is something that we now appear to be doing. Overall, if we do not go up this season, I am far more content knowing that there is a long term plan in place to reach that goal and that we are still on track. This is innumerably better than placing your entire operation on black, knowing there is a large chance that the roulette will land on red like last summer.
Style of Play
When it comes to the quality of football seen at Villa Park, Bruce was a Caterpillar and Dean Smith is a butterfly. We have gone from being Tony Pulis’ slightly less ugly brother to the Barcelona of the midlands. Last season, we averaged 1.56 goals in every game, since Smith came in this year we average 1.75 goals; when Grealish is fit this rises to well over 2 goals a game:
However it is the way we play that has most of us fans purring. Much like Brentford were, we now go out to pass the ball, dominating games and trying to score as many goals as we can in the process. This is in stark contrast to the defensive ‘defending a 1-0 lead’ ideology that Bruce implemented. We have put 6 past Middleborough, 7 past Derby and 8 past Nottingham Forest over the respective home and away games this season. THAT is entertainment. We zip the ball around the pitch too and our new ‘philosophy’ has seen some players improve massively. I’ve been a heavy critic of Glenn Whelan since he signed and I could not have been more wrong about him; he has come into his own since Grealish’ return and is now playing some of the best football of his career for club and country. This pass sums up his recent form:
Fans are turning up with genuine excitement to watch Villa play; when was the last time we did that? And this much has been evident in recent attendances. Last season we averaged only 32097 fans at home. Whilst this was still enough to put us top of the home attendance league (I’m sure Leeds still think they had more and it was a miscount) it was still a good 10000 seats short of our capacity. In our last game (against Blackburn) the home section of the ground sold out with an attendance of 39,687 and the game prior sold over 36000 tickets. By the time Bruce got sacked (Preston in October), we were only getting 27,331 fans through the gates.
The football is far better under Smith, it is as simple as that.
For more tactical analysis on this, check out this fantastic piece from December: https://totalfootballanalysis.com/head-coach-analysis/dean-smith-aston-villa-tactical-analysis-statistics
The Media and Handling Fans
In football, once you turn on the fans, it is only a matter of time until your out of the job. This is Steve Bruce after a win against Rotherham:
These comments would be unwise if we had just beaten Barcelona, but this was after a 2-0 win agains Rotherham. As you will see from the next embedded tweet, Bruce had been known to do this before:
Respect is a mutual thing in football and whilst you can’t condone fans throwing anything at a manager, as soon as you start to insult your own fans you incite more criticism.
Fortunately, we have now gone from a manager who insults his own fans, to a manager who is a fan of the club. Press conferences have gone from cliché filled soundbites to actual analysis under Smith. After we beat Bolton 2-0 during the early days of his reign, Smith did not insult the fans or stroke his own ego:
“We deserved to win, but I didn’t think we were anywhere near our best. Of the four games we’ve had since I came in, that was probably the least dominant we’ve been.
“After we scored the second goal, we had a 15 or 20 minute spell in which we were excellent, but there’s still a lot for us to work on. That brief spell showed me the levels this group can get to.
This sort of constructive criticism is levels above ‘there or therabouts’ and the classic Bruce style non’analysis.
The Importance of Saturday
Ultimately, if we are going to get promoted this season then Saturday is very important for us. We are one of 6/7 teams fighting for just 2 playoff spots and we therefore need to pick up as many points as possible. I would back us to do just this if we play at anywhere near the level we have recently. Bruce will set up defensively and try to steal a result; Pulis did the same and made the trip back up North with no points and 3 conceded goals to dwell on. Lets hope for more of the same.
However, even if we don’t get a result, this club now has a long-term strategy and hope for a sustainable and bright future. Unlike last year and our failed gamble under Bruce, this is the case regardless of promotion this season.
Lets hope football triumphs again this weekend.
Up The Villa,
By Callum Richardson
Whilst you are here, why not check out our podcast too?
(If you want to listen to it on soundcloud follow this link )