COMMENT By Matt Farr
Relegation from the Premier League last season should have been the necessary catalyst Aston Villa needed to spark a revival this term.
Sadly, that has not been the case, and now they find themselves in serious jeopardy once again. A run of five consecutive defeats leaves Villa in 17th place in the Championship, and at real risk of slipping into another relegation dogfight.
Just six points separates them from the relegation zone, but defeat to promotion chasers Derby on Saturday could see them take one step closer to the Championship’s bottom-three.
Only three sides have won fewer games than Steve Bruce’s side this season – Wigan, Blackburn and Rotherham in the bottom three – and they need something big to inspire confidence back into the Villa Park camp.
Here are three ways that they could re-discover some form and put the brakes on their slide down the table:
The fans often have a crucial part to play in the outcome of the season, and the Aston Villa support currently holds just as much influence as the players over the remainder of the campaign.
At the moment, many supporters have lost complete faith in the manager. Bruce made a decent start to life at the club back in October, but he has since seen his side go without a win in the league since Boxing Day; and things look very bleak indeed.
Chief executive Keith Wyness made it clear on Friday that the club had no intention of parting ways with Bruce, which may cause concern among the fans.
Sacking him would not be the answer though, purely because of the timing. The club would struggle to find someone capable of making real change within the final few months of the season, and they would only make things worse.
However, in their current predicament it is no use for the fans refusing to support the manager or the players. They are the ones that can inspire improvement on the pitch.
Whether they have confidence in the manager or not, they need to continue to give their all at every game. If the players don’t respond then so be it. The team deserve what is coming to them.
But if they lose interest, then Aston Villa will be going out this season – and possibly out of the division – with little more than a whimper.
In the tactical department, Aston Villa have been through the gears with little success. They began the season as a side that could score goals but couldn’t defend; now it is a case of the team not scoring goals either.
The January transfer window saw Bruce bring in a number of new players into his setup, and the changes brought about a fresh approach.
Bruce has recently opted to deploy two strikers in his side, though with the recent injury to Scott Hogan, that might be scrapped.
However, the new players have not yet had the desired affect, and Bruce needs to continue to rediscover that winning formula.
The main concern will be striking the balance between defence and attack that has so far eluded them for much of the season.
Their 30 goals scored is the joint-lowest in the league, while their recent inability to keep clean-sheets is not a pretty picture either.
The defence needs more cover, and the likes of Mile Jedinak could provide that in a defensive-midfield role. They simply need to stop conceding goals, and certain sacrifices may have to be made to ensure that.
Where is the desire from the Aston Villa players? In times like this, the blame always gets left at the door of the manager. But the players have to hold their hands up and take responsibility.
With five back-to-back defeats, no player in the first-team squad can really be under the impression that they have played well.
The new signings haven’t worked out as of yet, while the older players seem to be continuing their form from last season instead of making the necessary improvements.
Aston Villa would have backed themselves to be in with a shot at lifting the league title at the start of the season, but their latest slump has seen them fall to promotion outsiders, and now to potential relegation candidates.
So far there appears to be little desire to turn things around. Confidence is at a real low point, and a win against Derby could go a long way to change that.
Every player on the pitch on Saturday needs to perform to the best of their ability and fight Aston Villa’s corner. Some of them will still be benefitting a lot financially from their current slump, but they aren’t earning it.
Bruce should not be afraid to make drastic changes to his starting line-ups in the coming weeks if people aren’t offering enough – and they should be afraid.
In other Aston Villa news, fans have reacted on Twitter to the news that this senior man faces an eight-match absence.