Well, if Monday was us playing with the “gloves off”, the only thing we came away with was cold hands.
Had Bruce’s changes to personnel and set up made sense then it could’ve been seen as a positive move that the players reacted well to, however all I saw was a team lacking in balance or ideas.
Why play Carroll up top when there’s not a player on the pitch capable of putting a good cross into the box? Why leave Hayden out when our midfield is lacking in legs? Why continue to bemoan the same old ‘mistakes’ yet appear to do nothing to rectify those between games? Why keep playing Almiron on the wrong side? Why admit that Joelinton prefers to play just off the front, only to shift him out on the wing ever since he started to show glimpses of promise?
So many questions, so little answers from a Steve Bruce who has spoken and acted like a man who’s lost the plot since that defeat at Sheffield United.
With Burnley beating Liverpool on Thursday night, Fulham looking a far more competent side, West Brom beginning to click under Big Sam and Brighton earning a big win at Leeds last weekend, we have now been well and truly dragged into a relegation battle.
A few surprise wins over the next 7 days could ease those fears considerably, but with Aston Villa, Leeds and Everton up next, it’s hard to see where the points are coming from if we don’t see significant improvements.
After all, the first of these three crucial clashes will feature a team who have improved drastically since Bruce left them taking on another who are being destroyed bit by bit since the same man took charge.
- Allan Saint-Maximin – Back in training and set to be involved at Villa Park – although Bruce insists it’ll be too early for him to be thrown in from the start.
- Federico Fernandez – Bruce reckons he’s a “while off” from returning after a hamstring concern.
- Ciaran Clark – Another reliable centre-back who’s struggling with a knock, meaning he’s likely to miss out against his former club.
- Fabian Schar – Missed out at Arsenal but Bruce reckons he’ll be fit to return for this one; and it’s just as well with Fernandez and Clark injured.
- Ryan Fraser – Will be back after serving a one-game suspension in Monday’s 3-0 defeat at Arsenal.
- Dwight Gayle – Has been ‘unwell’, hence his absence at Arsenal on Monday, however it seems he may return to the matchday squad for this one.
For the hosts, midfield dynamo John McGinn is suspended, left-back Targett has been passed fit after being forced off at Man City, winger Trezeguet looks set to return to the squad and both Wesley and Hause remain long-term absentees.
Predicted line up
(4-4-2): Dubravka– Krafth, Lascelles, Schar, Lewis – Almiron, Hayden, Shelvey, Fraser– Wilson, Carroll.
OUT – Darlow, Clark, M Longstaff and Joelinton?
IN – Dubravka, Schar, Hayden and Fraser?
Starting in goal, I’ve got a feeling Bruce is going to recall Dubravka. It would be so harsh on Darlow, who has barely put a foot wrong, however some feel he should’ve done better with Aumayenag’s shot and his kicking kept us on the back foot at times.
At the back, Lascelles seems highly likely to partner Schar. Given their recent form and the fact the latter is rarely played in a back four, I wondered if we’d see Dummett join them on the left-side of a back three – however it seems he’s now got another injury issue after Bruce decided to play him twice in three days so soon after barely kicking a ball in 2020.
At right-back, I’d far prefer Manquillo to Krafth, but he’s not got a look in since he got COVID and Yedlin is rarely picked at right-back unless we’re playing a five-man defence, meaning Krafth and Lewis seem likely to continue. The former Norwich man is struggling badly, but I’m not sure what other options we have if it’s a back four Bruce sticks with.
I wouldn’t rule out Lascelles, Schar and Hayden in a three with Ritchie and Yedlin at wing-back, but that would see Bruce immediately ditch a formation he’s vowed to play more! He is a walking contradiction, mind…
In the middle of the park there has to be changes. Shelvey should be the one to go, but I think Bruce will stick with him and simply bring Hayden back in for Matty Longstaff.
Out wide, Almiron deserves another start after being our best outfield player at Arsenal and the only one to carry the ball forward, but Joelinton will surely come out of the side after offering absolutely nothing.
Ritchie could well come into Bruce’s thinking (not my first choice but he’ll be seen as ‘reliable’), however it could and should be Fraser who returns to the side after serving a one-game ban. He needs to be MUCH better after letting us down last time out, but players like him could be key to our revival, meaning minutes under his belt to get match fit could be key – especially when Carroll was starved of crosses at Arsenal.
Joelinton returning to that second striker role behind Wilson is a possibility, but I fancy Bruce to give Wilson and ‘big Andy’ another go up top.
Here’s a few ones to watch in Dean Smith’s much improved Villa side:
Jack Grealish – Arguably the best players outside the ‘big six’ on recent form and the driving force behind this much improved Villa side. Considering we’ve weak at right-back, we’ll have a big job on our hands to contain the twinkle-toed playmaker.
Ollie Watkins – At one stage last summer, some wondered if we’d sign him from Brentford and Villa would bring in Wilson from Bournemouth! At it turns out, Wilson’s numbers have been better so far this season, but Watins’ six goals, four assists and lively all round play have seen him fit into this Villa side very nicely.
Bertrand Traore – I’ve seen the former Lyon winger play a few times this season and there’s been no in between. That said, he’s looked a real handful with pace, impressive technique and tricky feet more often than not, bagging three goals in his last four league games before their 2-0 defeat to Man City in midweek.
Ross Barkley – A player Bruce wanted to sign on loan over the summer, only for Villa to outdo us. Has everything we lack in the middle of the park, offering power, drive and quality in the final third and will only add to their attacking threat now he’s fit again.
To say I’m fearing the worst ahead of this one would be an understatement.
Last season, this felt like a game we could win, with them fellow relegation rivals and struggling for goals, but how the tables have turned a year on.
They’re strong at the back, having kept eight clean sheets, are competitive in midfield, are full of creativity and no longer over reliant on star man Jack Grealish.
They may miss midfield workhorse John McGinn – a man Steve Bruce won’t let anyone forget he signed – and haven’t long overcome a big COVID outbreak, however they showed ZERO signs of fatigue or rustiness in their unfortunate defeat to Man City earlier this week,
At this point I would say that we are due a response to recent defeats or benefit from ASM’s return, but with the latter likely to be a late sub at best and two of our most reliable centre-backs set to be sidelined, I can’t see anything other than a comfortable home win that could get ugly if we don’t buck our ideas up.
Prediction: Aston Villa 3-1 Newcastle