Not a good day at Carrow Road—Villa had a chance to take advantage of Cardiff’s loss to Wolves and make a run at an automatic promotion spot Saturday. Instead, we fell to the Canaries 1-3, and sit seven points off second with five games to go. On this run of form and with our run-in, just staying in the playoff spots is going to take some work.

I’ve had a bit of trouble with this one, and it’s long, but let’s get to it. Feel free to skip to the end.

The Good
No one died.

Things seemed okay enough, and then they weren’t. Villa seemed like they might have some sort of answer, and then they didn’t. Jack finally got another goal, but it mattered not.

The Bad
Villa never found another gear or viable approach when it was all still to play for. One sucker punch (which was a lovely strike) at the end of the first half was followed by a very soft goal early in the second when John Terry tried moving up to put his man offside instead of dropping back to cover him. At 0-2, it seemed all but over. Johnathan Kodjia and Lewis Grabban replaced Albert Adomah and Robert Snodgrass immediately thereafter. Jack pulled one back, and for about five minutes it looked like we might at least salvage a point, but then we went and conceded again, and Villa seemed to meekly accept the game had gotten away from them.

While on paper subbing in Kodjia and Grabban might not seem the worst idea given that Albert Adomah and Robert Snodgrass had not proven decisive on the day, it didn’t really accomplish much. Villa did claw a goal back following their introduction, and it was Kodjia with the assist for Grealish. Fair enough.

But really, it’s not a particularly good idea on paper. We’ve complained all season about the lack of Plan B, and it was in evidence again Saturday. Both Kodjia and Grabban ostensibly can play from wide areas, but neither is actually a winger. What you get is three central players, leaving the wings exposed, putting more pressure on the fullbacks to both deliver crosses and defend. The forwards largely end up canceling each other out with the congestion, and there are fewer options for getting them the ball. Each thrives in a different set-up, yet putting them all on means they’re the set-up, and they’re not well suited to providing service for each other.

It did change the way we play, but not necessarily in a cohesive, well thought-out way.

The Ugly
Whether tired mentally or physically, there was no extra spark in a huge game at a big moment. For all intents and purposes, we didn’t seem to have the bottle for it.

Final Verdict
Watching the game, it simply felt like one of those days. A goal from out of nowhere, a second from a mental mistake, and voila, too big a hill to climb.

However, at this stage of the season to be flat in a game like this was troubling, all the more so given how much better we’d played against Reading. However poor the Royals might have been, we showed fight and energy, connected well and quickly, and took it to them throughout. I would’ve liked to think that on this day, we could’ve dug deep, found another gear, and similarly played like our lives depended on it. It just didn’t happen.

I’ve seen the season-long perspective raised, and I think those who are asking questions of Bruce are right to do so. As far as Saturday’s starting lineup is concerned, that’s the team I would pick most often, as I’ve said, though I’ve really been talking about Grealish, Bjarnason, and Hourihane, with Hogan up top. Adomah and Snodgrass pick themselves. This group has scored goals, produced most of our best football, and is the quickest, most athletic, and energetic combination we seem to have.

But of course, no preferred starting XI is going to play to its potential each and every time. And no starting XI is going to be a perfect fit for every game or situations within games.

Sadly, though, there’s been no methodical development of the side overall, either in terms of youth, systems, or players that can be rotated in without us losing cohesion. The players obviously have to shoulder responsibility for their performances on a given day, but it can also be the case that the team has not been managed astutely.

(And to be fair, injuries have played a role in hindering development. Lansbury’s been unavailable for long stretches. Players like Tuanzebe have come in and picked up injuries. Kodjia, obviously has missed most of the season. You know the list.)

It was, as we know, changes enforced by injury that inadvertently produced a decent side, one that it’s long been argued Bruce would not have arrived at on his own. But Bruce was keen to mess with it, seemingly to try and fit in players we’d acquired.

To my mind, though, when Plan A isn’t clicking, you go back to something else that worked well at times, which was getting Davis in. But Davis has largely been absent of late, meaning that a reasonable Plan B has never been cemented.

Which leads a person to look at the bench—uninspiring, to say the least. I get the value of experience. But to have Jedinak and Whelan both on there really defies belief. If you don’t trust anyone else to come in at CB, then I guess, okay, you’re going to put Jedinak in, for better or worse. But it seems a bit late in the day for us not to have another CB prepared to come into the side.

Beyond that, there’s no room on the bench for Whelan right now. Give the spot to Davis, so you can change the way we’re playing if Plan A isn’t working, and do so in a manner with which the team is somewhat accustomed.

And while the idea of having Kodjia back is nice, I’m just not seeing that he’s ready to come on and take over a game. He does have moments of magic in him, but I worried that trying to slot him back in would be disruptive at this stage. It’s either he or Grabban on the bench, and most likely Grabban, given fitness and match time. If you think Hogan is the problem, start Grabban. Onomah? Again, why? What’s he really going to change? Fresh legs, sure. But he hasn’t shown that he’s going to swing a game your way. Lansbury I understand, but he’s just not been played enough when fit up to now to be at his best, and Bruce doesn’t seem to know where to put him anyway.

Further, there was no other FB available to change things up if either Elmo or Taylor got hurt, were having a stinker, or were being overrun. Why insert Tuanzebe into the side almost immediately, and then take him back out? Wouldn’t he have been a substitute that could either have changed things at the back or slotted into the DM role to allow the side to stay strong, athletic, and quick to get more going up front without opening ourselves up? He’s certainly no more a liability than Onomah. Never mind the youth we’re never going to see. The ship has already sailed, but someone like O’Hare could have changed the dynamic up front, provided energy, and a different type of service without making us vulnerable.

In short, seems to me this was an extremely cautious and ill-considered bench. It said that either Bruce expected the starters to be strolling, or that he’s just being Steve Bruce. Throwing on Kodjia and Grabban was certainly an attack-minded move, but really smacks of desperation and says there is no Plan B. Or not a very clever one, anyway. It’s back to the strange choices with no apparent logic. That should not be the case at this point.

Anyway, I’m left scratching my head. I’d already assumed second was gone, so I’m not necessarily depressed or angry about that. However, I am depressed because it did suddenly become possible and we were completely unable to do anything about it. We ran out our best combination beyond the back four, got nothing, flailed in trying to change things up to get something, and now have Cardiff on Tuesday. If this bunch were tired or bottled it against the Canaries, I have no idea how they’re going to put up a real fight Tuesday. Maybe they will. Maybe they play best when things seem out of reach and the pressure’s off.

But if that’s the case, it doesn’t bode well for the playoffs. This is exactly how you don’t want to be playing through the run-in, and while we can and should look to the players, we also have to look to the manager for having no apparent means of changing things for the better. Everyone else around us is flying, by comparison, and we’ve lost our way.

All certainly is not lost at this moment, but the trend is decidedly unfavorable. Unless being underdogs is what gets the best out of us.

Over to you.

Comments 22

  1. Yeah – good summary John.

    Without repeating anything I wrote on the previous thread, I’ve not been able to shake the feeling that Villa would always struggle to get over the mediocre start to the season (compared to Wolves and Cardiff), and although they did put a statistically good run together during recent months, the inconsistency has returned with a vengeance. In current form, the run-in looks challenging and we may fall outside of the top 6.

    For the money invested by Xia to-date this would be a huge disappointment to him and a wholesale clearout of the backroom will follow, or he will take the Lerner view that this is an expensive toy not worth investing in. Wolves have the Portuguese angle, but nobody else in this division has bags of cash so its a mystery why Villa seem unable to assemble a team capable of promotion.

  2. JC – I agree with your sentiments.

    Looking at the remaining fixtures of the teams that can rob us of a play off spot, they all have to play each other. So we will be mathematically certain to make the play offs if we win 2 more games. By next Sat evening we could be there with 3 games to spare.

    The probability is that 1 more win will be enough to make it. We’ll know more by next weekend. However, the litmus test is our current form and the play offs will favour the form team.

  3. Very well put JC, I feel Bruce will favour his choices (players he’s acquired ) over the likes of O’hare etc even when they are not the natural choice. You have to wonder what he promises to get players to come here?

  4. Paul,

    I think you’re right, and it’s this time of year that the season-long view comes into play.

    Mark and r0bb0 have debated six-pointers, Bruce has pointed to a final points tally, and everyone’s right. Main thing is, you go through extended periods underachieving and you can find yourself in a mess.

    And that’s where we are.

  5. And I should add that while a slow start doesn’t necessarily predict a bad outcome at the end, it does put you under needless pressure from the off. It also squeezes down the margin of error the rest of the way.

    You can assume that others will have the same sorts of runs, but that’s not guaranteed.

  6. Plug,

    Thank you for doing the math. That doesn’t sound so terrible.

    But as you also point out, I really don’t like Villa’s form compared with the sides we’ll likely be facing the playoffs.

  7. MK,

    I dunno, but you have to think it’s almost guaranteed they’ll play from the looks of things. And I don’t think that’s good for a dressing room.

    That said, Bruce knows a helluva lot more about that than I do. Still, it just seems like we’ve never really settled or established a pecking order. When you start the season assuming Gabby is part of your opening day XI (ie, part of your best side), you have to wonder.

    And if I’m Birkir, I can’t imagine Whelan starting ahead of me. Saturday he wasn’t as dominant as he was Tuesday, but still far more influential and effective than Whelan could be on the best day he’d ever have in a Villa shirt.

  8. JC- Its the manner that our youth are dismissed in favour of youth on loan thats disturbing too, lots has been said about not putting pressure on them in a promotion seeking year and their supposed lack of experience, well that experience has not had the desired effect in my opinion in matches of sorting it out on the pitch either. Also the loaned in youth have had plenty of chances and produced very little to shout about. How O’hare wasn’t given game time when Grealish was out I’ll never know and Bree treatment baffling. The bench resembles some kind of old pals act more than a viable game changing one.

    Seems to me as PW said the slumps have cost us dear, we have had three now all which could,should, or would end in the tic tac for Bruce elsewhere, but that seems to be his format wherever he is as I pointed out a couple of weeks back. Its almost like he lives by his sayings like “thats the championship for you” if he doesn’t believe consistency is attainable in this league why should the team? Meanwhile elsewhere other teams are more consistent, its like he believes the season is happening to him and not that he can effect it.

  9. well said MK,

    I watch most teams on Sky in the Premiership and the Championship, where you see managers, giving youngsters the chance to gain experience, not just by being on the bench, but by participating in games, even if it is only a ten minute cameo, it gives them experience of the game, the crowd, and the pressure of being part of it.

    Not sure, but I think Ray Wilkins was captain at 18 years old….!!!!

  10. Good points, MK, PP.

    Fulham are unbeaten in how many now is it?

    Far as kids go, don’t disagree. I’ve been puzzled by Onomah, like most everyone, the seeming guarantee he would play, and Tuanzebe basically walks straight in. But Axel didn’t seem to be as nailed-on as Onomah was to begin with. Now Onomah has barely been seen. Whatever the case, neither has greatly assisted the cause. Onomah had the one deflected game winner, so cheers for that, but.

    Snoddy earned his spot, Grabban…still dunno if he’s been a net plus or not, in the grand scheme.

  11. One obvious thing is the teams average age even with 2-3 youngsters it has been in the 29-30 bracket. Bruce’s last promotion had an average age of 25-26 could be that lack of recovery in periods of quick games is too much at this level for the majority of the side? Davis covered an extroidinary amount of ground in his golden patch which wasn’t matched by any other player at the time, crazy for a forward. Perhaps the team has just run out steam to play counter attack as Bruce wants? Lethargic describes us to a tee lately. I’d hazard a guess that this is the oldest side Bruce has built and that might just account for his lack of a remedy?

  12. MK,

    We talked a lot about the average age of the side back when, and you may well be right about recovery, etc. It is a young league, and maybe we just can’t match everyone, especially when games are close together.

    That’s why Saturday was so disappointing. We should’ve had enough time to recover from Reading, but just didn’t seem to have the juice. Maybe it was mental more than anything, hard to say.

  13. JC- I had a quick glance and Derby have the oldest team consistently along with Burton Bolton and Birmingham and us, can you draw any conclusions from that? three struggling and two inconsistent over the long haul?

  14. Spot on MK.

    The average age of our core team of Adomah, Snoddy, Jedi, Whelan, Hutton, Elmo, Taylor, Chester and JT is just under 32 years. That’s way too high for a division that regularly plays midweek games.

    Whilst they are capable of an exceptional performance, the midweek games are going to find them out. So it’s not really surprising that results will peter out unless the above lot are only given 1 game per week.

  15. Oh Bruce Bruce Bruce

    You know I’m so fed up of his s**t that I didn’t go to the last ho,e game and I won’t be going to tomorrow tonight either to watch Cardiff beat us. I’d rather sleep then watch the cr*p Bruce has given us.

    He’s ran Snodgrass and Adomah into the ground. They are burnt out. He makes them track back every second we don’t have the ball. When we get it they are so deep they are blowing out their arses by the time they get into the final thrird. They are f**ked. We will need to rest them for the play off games.

    And what’s he doing with Grealish ? The best dribbler in the league, 5r best CAM in the league and he’s playing hi, centre mid when we don’t have the ball. Why ? Keep him in between the back four and midfield 4 of the opposition. When we win the ball back, we could find him in between the lines but instead we just have to hoof it to 5ft Hogan. Bruce is an over rated defensive wanker. I hate him so much

    I think Villa fans are finally realising how poor he is. He’s failed not getting this team up automatically. I think he knows that. I 5ink he knows the fans know he’s failed to

    Horrible thought is we are stay in this league again,or we go up and keep Bruce. We won’t win a game with the twat in charge

    I hate him. I hate him. I hate him

    I think it could turn on him at VP tomorrow when Cardiff do us

  16. frem
    need to be careful saying all them nasty things about bruce ,2/3 on here keep praising him but can never explain why ? but i agree with every word you wrote

  17. Frem, JG.

    Say whatever you will (within the usual bounds of general politeness). That’s what the blog is for.

    I know Frem is not alone. And it’s for love of the club.

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