After an inconsistent first season and a handful of new signings this summer, what can expect to see from Villa this season? Kevin Hughes looks at what we’ve learnt of Steve Bruce’s time as Villa manager so far and realises this team still seems short of shape, style and a formation that really works…
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THE TEAM THAT STEVE BRUCE BUILT

Trying to understand exactly what Steve Bruce is doing with this Villa team is proving a more complicated task than I expected. I thought I knew what we were getting when Bruce was appointed in October 2016; an experienced manager, with a proven track record of success in the Championship. A manager with an ability to build solid, consistent, resilient and – yes – winning teams at that level.

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To me, from the day Bruce took the Villa job, I saw promotion as a long, long shot. We’d fallen too far behind the leading pack already, a result of far too many dropped points during Roberto Di Matteo’s short spell in charge. But I expected Bruce to pull us together, to turn the draws into narrow victories and the defeats into draws, and I thought Villa would push hard to edge into the playoffs.
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That didn’t happen; Villa finished the 2016-17 season in 13th place, 18 points behind Fulham, who took the last playoff place in sixth position.
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I expected Bruce to make Villa difficult to beat, a stubborn and defiant team who’d rarely give a game away. In a couple of spells, notably immediately after the new manager came in, and then towards the back end of February and throughout March, Villa did look like that. But overall, the team lost far too many games – 13 in 35 matches, in fact. And not all against the division’s stronger sides, either. Bruce oversaw losses to relegated Blackburn, near-relegated Nottingham Forest, Wolves and Ipswich. We were embarrassed at home by Barnsley, and humiliated by a rampant Brentford, away.
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All in all, under Bruce last season, Villa were an odd team. Didn’t play great football, didn’t score many goals – just 47 all season, barely a goal a game – weren’t particularly difficult to beat. Multiple formations were tried, tested and rejected. New players were signed and didn’t really seem to understand where they best fitted in. For a manager I thought knew his own mind better than most, Bruce actually seemed to change his more frequently than I anticipated.
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A case in point: Reading at home in April. I was at Villa Park that afternoon and Villa really should have got something out of that game, instead of a 3-1 defeat. But the changes Bruce made during the game baffled me. Each substitution seemed a backward step. Jordan Amavi, standing in for the injured Neil Taylor, struggled badly – not for the first time that season – but the decision to withdraw him and move Leandro Bacuna to left-back did neither the player nor the team any favours. Bacuna’s failure to deal with a Reading counter-attack, from a Villa corner, led directly to a third goal for the visitors and wrapped the game up.
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Later, Bruce brought Scott Hogan on. Expecting to see Hogan line up at centre-forward with Jonathan Kodija switching wide left, I was surprised to see the former take up the left wing role. Surprised because Kodija was being stifled very well by the Reading centre-backs and giving him more freedom to use his pace in a wide area against Chris Gunter seemed the better option. Surprised because Hogan is not a wide player, never has been and never will be. He needs to be in and around the penalty area to be properly effective. Hogan never looked like getting into the pace of the game.
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With Villa chasing a point, Bruce’s next move was to bring Jack Grealish on. Good – a creative spark. Again, the reshuffle was strange. Instead of swapping out a midfielder, Bruce pushed Mile Jedinak into the back four, pulling Nathan Baker out, and Grealish edged out wide. Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane stayed in the central areas. Why bring Grealish on and put him on the fringes of the action?
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I travelled home that evening seriously questioning the direction Bruce was taking Villa in, and why he had made so many decisions that seemed akin to putting square pegs in round holes. Coming out of the season, the bottom line was this – if Jedinak didn’t play, we didn’t win. If Kodija didn’t pull something out of the bag, we didn’t win. Everything else just seemed messy.
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AND SO TO THE 2017-18 SEASON
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Let’s start by making a few statements.
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Steve Bruce is not really my ‘type’ of manager, or coach. But I’ve long given up on hoping that Villa recruit a coach who implements the kind of football I like to see, and nurtures the kind of talent I want to watch; the last few seasons have been nothing short of disastrous for the club and there are more urgent matters to hand. It’s not really about what I want. It’s about what the club needs – so I didn’t have an issue with Bruce’s appointment, especially given the timing and the circumstances, and I’m not willing him to do anything other than succeed.
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I also don’t have an issue with any manager who’s style and approach lends itself heavily to pragmatic. Not at all. And particularly not at Villa, where the only goal is promotion back to the Premier League, as swiftly as possible. We need to get back up. Winning ugly? No problem at all with that. Playing ugly and losing? It doesn’t get much worse than that, in footballing terms.
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Based on Bruce’s summer recruitment so far, it’s clear he’s focusing on a certain type of player. Heavily experienced, proven performers – to a certain extent – with leadership qualities. With the exception of Sam Johnstone, secured on a season loan from Manchester United (ironically, the goalkeeper possibly being the one position you really want filled by an experienced, proven player) all other signings fall into this category:
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John Terry
Ahmed Elmohamady
Glenn Whelan
Chris Samba
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Individually, there’s a case for signing each of these. Terry, despite his age, still has the ability to be the best centre-back in the Championship providing he stays fit. Elmohamady is a versatile player down the right-hand side, and has had success at this level before with Hull. Whelan is one of those authoritative, tough, underrated central midfielders that all teams could do with. Samba, as a free agent, has earned his one-year contract after training with the club for months and although he probably won’t be a regular starter, he’s a reliable defender to call on when needed. Certainly a stronger option than Tommy Elphick and Micah Richards.
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Collectively, they represent quite a senior group. Terry is 37 in December; Elmohamady 30 in September; Whelan and Samba 34 next January and March respectively.
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That’s not necessarily a problem. Terry and Samba are on one year contracts and the likelihood is that, if Villa are not promoted come the end of the season, they will leave. As will Bruce, surely. If he cannot secure promotion with this squad – now ‘his’ squad, by the time all the outgoing players have departed – then he must be considered a failure. He’ll go.
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THE BIGGER QUESTION IS THIS – HOW WILL THESE PLAYERS FIT INTO THE TEAM, AND HOW WILL VILLA UP IN 17-18?
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It’s a question we can’t yet answer. We can only speculate. That in itself is a worry. The manager had seven months of last season to settle on a style and an effective formation, as well as the weeks of pre-season so far. Yet we’re still not really any closer to understanding for sure how Villa will play and who lines up where.
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THREE AT THE BACK?
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Elmohamady’s arrival would seem to provide the biggest clue that Bruce plans to roll out the three at the back set-up which served him well at Hull. Key to that system working well is usually the performance and the suitability of the wing-backs, and Elmohamady is a good fit for that right-sided spot. He’s not really a right-back or a right-midfielder, but he is suited to the wing-back position. He can motor up and down the pitch all afternoon, and he can deliver a decent cross – certainly more so than Alan Hutton.
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Now, I don’t have a problem with a 3-5-2 as such. It can work. It has done for other teams. But it depends on who is included in that formation. Because for me, while discussing formations is a popular trend and we can do it for hours on end – and do, every week – the inclusion of players within that formation is more important, in my opinion.
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For instance, I often hear outcries of despair if 4-4-2 is mentioned. Flat and out of date, right? Well, maybe. But while a team might line-up on paper in a 4-4-2, during the course of a game it only takes a tweak here and there to become a 4-4-1-1; or a 4-1-3-2; or a 4-2-3-1 and everyone feels a lot happier about themselves.
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It’s the same with 3-5-2. Put the wrong sort of wing-backs in there and it can easily become a 5-3-2, and you’re on the back foot. We saw this happen last season when Hutton and Taylor were the wing-backs (and when Hutton and Cissokho were the wing-backs, too). Hutton and Cissokho are pretty limited beyond the halfway line; Taylor is better but still more of an orthodox left-back.
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The three midfielders are key, too. What’s their shape? How do they work? With three centre-backs behind them, you don’t really need a defensive midfielder. It’s a waste of a position. And you can’t have them in a flat line of three. What you really need are two midfielders side by side and a third further forward. Or one sitting slightly deeper but very mobile rather than a ‘holder’ and two further forward.
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You can see where I’m headed with this.
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My concern with what I’m seeing from Bruce so far is not that he’ll use a 3-5-2 but who he’ll use in it. We know he favours caution over creation, and if he reverts to type we could see a very defensive, one-dimensional Villa side over the course of the season. By all means, tell me it’s about the results – and it is, I agree – but I’m not sure this approach will get the results. To get promotion from the Championship you need to win games, and lots of them. Villa need to be positive and play on the front foot, because there is certainly enough talent in the squad to blow away most of the opposition – if we have the right mindset. I wouldn’t even have Villa lining up more defensively away from home than at Villa Park; be proactive, go for it, and take the points. Home and away.
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Consider two line-ups – essentially the same formation but with slightly different players and slightly different roles.
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One has Nathan Baker alongside Terry and James Chester at the back, with Jedinak, Whelan, and Henri Lansbury as the midfield trio and Elmohamady and Taylor in the wide roles. Hogan and Kodija are the twin strikers.
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This has the potential to become hugely defensive with Jedinak stepping onto the toes of the back three, and the only real creativity coming from Lansbury and the two wing-backs. How much service would Hogan and Kodija see? Swapping Whelan for Hourihane would improve this – but only if Hourihane is given licence to get on the ball and get forward.
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Now, the alternative. Jedinak comes in for Baker, essentially stepping in between Terry and Chester when needed. Hourihane partners Lansbury in CM and ahead of those two is Grealish, in an advanced attacking midfield role.
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We have a free starting spot now, and that goes to Andre Green, wide on the left. A subtle tweak means Villa now have a front three of Kodija, Hogan and Green. And before the howls of derision start, that’s not Kodija stuck out wide on the right touchline, but to the right of centre – able to move in to out in that gap between left-sided centre-back and left-back.
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How does that look? The result is a Villa side still full of experience and solidity, difficult to break down, but also one with a range of attacking options and creativity. There are options for changes, too – James Bree and Jordan Amavi (if he stays) as potential wing-backs, Whelan for Lansbury, Albert Adomah for Hogan (then pushing Kodija to centre-forward).
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The challenge for Bruce remains – he now has a very capable squad at his disposal but the job of getting them to play effectively together starts now. This Villa team needs to click quickly if promotion is to be achieved.
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