What's changed at Aston Villa? Steve Bruce's side chase promotion after decline
Last Updated: 11/02/18 10:55am
After years of decline, things are finally looking up for Aston Villa. Gerard Brand explains why…
It hasn't always been a smooth ride for Aston Villa this season. After defeat at Brentford six weeks ago, there were strong calls for manager Steve Bruce's head, a theme that has persisted from some quarters of Villa's support since the former Birmingham manager's very first poor run.
The Championship is still a new phenomenon to some at Villa, and it has showed. European Cup-winning, long-time Premier League ever-presents Aston Villa in the second tier? Well, it can only be liquid football and a stroll to promotion, right? Wrong.
Bruce has instead built a side difficult to beat, often difficult to watch, but finally on the right track as they enter the second city derby against Birmingham City, live on Sky Sports Football on Sunday.
Their late 1-0 victory at Middlesbrough in December, the first of their current six-game winning run, gave Bruce the opportunity to say it how it is.
"I hope this shuts a few people up again as it becomes very annoying that we're just one week away from a crisis. We have to get on with the job in hand."
Bruce, referring to Villa's fans and other critics, didn't hold back, and supporters more or less sympathised with him. The atmosphere at Villa Park had been stagnant, bordering on poisonous, for too long, but the recent resurgence on the pitch leaves them with a genuine chance of promotion at the second attempt.
Nine-tenths of the law?
What has he changed? Wins breed confidence, and that first victory at Boro was vital, but a deeper look at Villa's possession stats shows a startling switch in approach. In short, they're happy without the ball.
Of their 30 Championship games this season, Villa have surrendered the majority of possession on 19 occasions. That may surprise a few, given Dr Tony Xia's investment has resulted in a spend of nearly £100m, and much of that splashed on their Championship rivals' best attacking talent.
Of those 19 games, Villa have taken 40 points from a possible 57, or 2.10 points per game, compared with 1.45 points per game with the majority of the ball.
Some would argue it's defensive, others would argue the balanced approach is the key to promotion.
Villa aren't exempt from a decade of stagnation in the Football League, a la giants Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and many others. Bruce realises it's a case of get out, and as soon as you can.
"The Championship throws up results you wouldn't expect," said Bruce in late December. "So I hope the euphoria dies down a bit to let us get on with it."
Spreading the load
In front of goal and on the counter, Villa have become more clinical. Their average passes per game are ranked a modest 10th in the Championship, proving once more that possession is not important - it's what you do with it.
The absence of last season's top scorer Jonathan Kodjia through long-term injury has not had the feared impact; the goals have been made up by Albert Adomah, Robert Snodgrass and the recent fine form of Scott Hogan.
Villa's shot conversion rate has gone from 8.5 per cent (21st in Championship) in 2016/17, to 12.7 per cent (4th) this term.
Goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, on loan along with Snodgrass, has been equally as impressive, and local boy Jack Grealish is finally delivering on a consistent basis after returning from long-term injury.
Grealish is tricky, a target for defenders. His often-criticised ability to draw the foul is perfect for Bruce's style of play.
Despite missing large chunks of the last two seasons, Grealish has been fouled 117 times in the Championship, the third-highest number of any player in the division. Since his first start back from injury in mid-December, Grealish has been fouled more than any other Championship player.
Snodgrass is third on that list, and it's no surprise that 11 of Villa's goals this season have come from headers, second only to Ipswich.
Off the pitch, harmony has been restored. Morale can trump money in a promotion push, and it's sky high at Villa.
Of the so-called 'Bomb Squad', those left surplus to requirements in Villa's dismal relegation season of 2015/16, only the resurgent Alan Hutton gets a game, and while Gabriel Agbonlahor and Micah Richards remain at the club, neither get a look in.
"Nothing penetrates the dressing room because we all believe in each other," striker Hogan said last month. "If someone wants to say it, let them. We all see each other every day and know what we can do. If people want to write, tweet, whatever.
"It is one of the things which gets missed. People look at the names we have in the group and think we are all individuals. People look beyond the fact we really are a tight-knit group."
But form is fragile, particularly in such an unforgiving division. "We lurch along and it only takes one," warns Bruce. How Villa react to their next defeat will be key as promotion begins to enter their minds, but fans will be praying the visit of their city rivals doesn't trigger that particular test.
Don't miss the Sky Bet Championship clash between Aston Villa and Birmingham on Sunday, live on Sky Sports Football and Main Event from 11.30am
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