EFL Reporter @simgholam
Steve Bruce under pressure, Jack Grealish's dip in form: Problems facing Aston Villa
Aston Villa travel to Blackburn in the Sky Bet Championship on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Football from 5.15pm
Last Updated: 15/09/18 5:56pm
Aston Villa were 90 minutes away from a return to the Premier League in May, but they have got off to an indifferent start in the Sky Bet Championship this season.
Here, with the help of Sky Sports pundit Andy Hinchcliffe, we take a look at some of they key problems facing Steve Bruce and Villa...
Bruce feeling the pressure... again
Not for the first time since he took charge at Villa Park, Bruce is feeling the heat again after an indifferent start to the season, culminating in that 4-1 thumping at Sheffield United before the international break.
Villa were unbeaten in the Championship before that trip to Bramall Lane but they now have just two wins from their first six games and sit 12th in the table.
It's been a tough year for Bruce personally and it was not always certain over the summer he would stay in charge at Villa in 2018/19, despite leading them to the play-off final last season.
"Whoever is in charge of Villa is going to be under this scrutiny," says Hinchcliffe. "It's one of the biggest clubs that's ever played in the Championship and Steve knew the demands of the challenge he was taking on.
"He fell short last season and I was worried he would be leaving in the summer. I still think he's the best man to get them promoted but there are still clearly problems, some of which were there last season.
"Middlesbrough and Leeds have very differing styles but when you watch them play you can tell there's a clear gameplan. Villa's squad should beat anybody on paper but sometimes when you watch them play it can look like just a collection of players."
Villa appeared to have resolved their goalkeeping problem last season by bringing in Sam Johnstone on loan from Manchester United, who was one of the standout stoppers in the Championship.
However, his performances matched with Villa's summer problems meant West Brom got the jump on Bruce's side to sign Johnstone permanently, leaving them in search of a new No 1.
Jed Steer, a reserve last season, started their first game of the season as they won at Hull, but he's since been shipped out on loan and Orjan Nyland arrived from Ingolstadt. The Norwegian's form has been mixed so far and he was arguably at fault for a couple of their goals as they fell at Bramall Lane.
"The amount West Brom paid for Johnstone proves how good he was last season," says Hinchcliffe. "It's such a vital position in the Championship, where you're going to come under a lot of pressure.
"You cannot afford to make these kinds of mistakes and still hope to win football matches, but finding a goalkeeper for this level isn't easy because there are so many teams looking for the same type of thing.
"Villa are in pole position to pick up a lot of players because they're such a big draw, but the only goal for them is to get promoted so every player you look to get in has to be geared to steering you into at least the top six, if not the top two.
"Nyland still has plenty of time to prove himself but it's not easy for any team to bring in who they want."
Not replacing Terry
Johnstone wasn't the only player they failed to adequately replace for this season. The loss of John Terry has proved a huge blow in terms of both his performances on the pitch and his influence off it.
Mile Jedinak has been James Chester's regular central defensive partner so far and it's led to a huge amount of uncertainty and an incredibly leaky backline.
So far only two teams have conceded more than Villa in the Championship this season, and no other side in the top 12 has conceded double figures so far.
"They haven't replaced Terry, it's pretty straightforward," says Hinchcliffe. "Jack Grealish was one who talked a lot about what he did for him, and you can't replace that like for like, because there's no one really like him.
"Tommy Elphick played at the start of the season but he's gone out on loan now because it doesn't appear that Steve Bruce really fancied him. They're going to be under a lot of pressure in those positions, and that's the way the season has worked out so far.
"They need to get through to January and see where they are. Jedinak has a lot of experience but it's not his ideal position and he's struggling there. He's not a true centre-half and he wouldn't be my first choice to play there by any means."
Grealish struggling to replicate form
It's still early in the season, but all the stats so far point to the fact Grealish's form has dipped so far this season.
The midfielder essentially dragged Villa to the play-off final with some exceptional performances, but a summer of speculation probably did not help his concentration levels in pre-season and until the closure of the transfer window.
Per 90 minutes Grealish is down on, passes made, dribbles completed, shots taken, duels won, tackles won, interceptions made and recoveries made. One of they only key statistics he is up on this season is fouls won, which may prove that he's become more of a target for the opposition this campaign.
"From what I've seen his body language is still good," says Hinchcliffe. "But his issues may boil down to the Villa gameplan again. It's not just him that's the issue it's other players trying to get him into the game. They're not playing to his strengths to allow him the influence he can have.
"Obviously there was all the speculation in the summer but I've not seen a drop from him so far. It's very easy to rush to judgement and assume he'd rather be elsewhere but that's not what I've seen when I've watched him play.
"He will always be up and down but it's still early in the season and he can't be a superstar in every single game. There needs to be some common sense and some realisation that he's still young."
Reasons to be cheerful
Despite all the perceived shortcomings in their squad and performances so far, Hinchcliffe believes there are still plenty of reasons for Villa to feel positive this season, and that Bruce's side should still be targeting the top two this season.
"Arguably the standard this season has dropped a little bit in the Championship following the promotion of Wolves and Fulham, and that should give Villa a better chance," he says.
"They may not have addressed some problems at the back but they've brought in two excellent new attacking players in Tammy Abraham and Yannick Bolasie which should make them a real threat going forward if they can get the balance right.
"There aren't any teams like Villa in the Championship and they're still a scalp for anyone. But they've still got a chance and with the players they've got they should still be aiming for at least the top six, if not then automatic promotion."
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