The headlines, tweets and pitchforks were primed until the 93rd minute, as Villa look destined for back-to-back defeats after a confused and ultimately lame 1-1 draw at Ewood Park.
However, Bruce’s blushes were saved, with late substitute Conor Hourihane curling home an outrageous free-kick at the death.
This though, is more than a salvaged away point. The result keeps Bruce and the veracious debate surrounding him rolling into another week.
Villa started brightly enough, likely wanting to banish the memory of a 4-1 mauling at Sheffield United inflicted before the international break.
Indeed, the set-up included prolific [at Championship level] loanee Tammy Abraham, making his first appearance for the club. Kodjia, who’s had mixed success so far this term after a return from long term injury, watched on from the bench.
Abraham, still hopeful of breaking into the Chelsea first team, soon cut a forlorn lonely figure up front. Despite finding himself isolated for long periods, the full England international may be disappointed not to have got on the scoresheet.
An instinctive second half header blazed past the hosts near post, but his second clear cut effort, after good interplay with Adomah was wastefully powered wide.
These were unfortunately sparse moments of threat in a game that Villa rarely commanded, nor appeared to have any lasting rhythm or flair.
John McGinn, a terrier like engine was similarly unsuccessful in the final third and also guilty of a needless rash challenge that earned him a pointless yellow. This meant he played much of the game on probation, thus contributing to our impotency in midfield.
Grealish was tricky, but drifted in and out of the game. As the only player gifted with true natural creative ability, he was an easy target for Blackburn to both man mark with ease, and adopt a physical approach to at times.
The wings equally delivered little to inspire. Adomah’s form continues to evade him. Elmohamady was predictable. Both were hard working, but often at the wrong end of the pitch.
The defence remains a concern.
At times it makes for alarming viewing, especially given the combined experience of Chester, Hutton and the recalled Neil Taylor. The welcome return of recognised fullbacks provided some logic to proceedings, but neither player brings consistency to the side.
Axel Tuanzebe plays like many young defenders, oozing confidence, showing potential, but prone to harmful lapses of judgement. Such lapses are eradicated through experience, so it’s unfortunate that the Manchester United youngster finds Aston Villa as his sandbox.
Tuanzebe over 90 minutes was either sublime or scary, with Nyland sparing him the embarrassment of an own goal, producing an excellent low goal-line save.
Blackburn were patient and disciplined. They weren’t spectacular, but they were organised and had a clear game plan.
Dack, linked to Villa in January 2018, certainly caught the eye with his clever movement, good positioning and was central to a number of dangerous passages of play.
The warning signs were a constant from the hosts, with Villa repeatedly inviting pressure from set plays.
The already mentioned save from Nyland from Tuazebes clearance came after the youngster had expertly scrambled a dangerous ball over the Villa crossbar.
Rovers can also feel rightly aggrieved to have seen a headed goal disallowed, with the linesman incorrectly flagging Dack’s header from a Mulgrew free-kick as offside.
Whilst we were fortunate with that one, McGinn was then swiftly fouled in the Blackburn area, his legs taken from underneath him. The referee amazingly waved the Villa remonstrations away. The referee was woefully inept for both sides, he didn’t discriminate his incompetency.
Blackburn’s goal under-lined Villa’s lack of cohesion as a team, with a period of headless interplay resulting in Dack coolly back-heeling a finish home.
Villa threw on Kodjia, Hourihane and debutant Bolasie to finally attempt to give Blackburn something to thing about.
But it was a visible desperate roll of the dice from Bruce, as the prospect of consecutive defeats loomed against a backdrop of new faces and having rejigged the defence.
Hourihane was the figure to step up and salvage a point for Villa in spectacular style. The Irishman’s goal can’t be over-egged as having saved Bruce’s job, but it likely stopped the travelling support calling for his head again.
Hourihane has struggled for form and favour since his arrival from Barnsley last year, but he make no mistake in the 93rd minute. This high pressure free-kick was expertly despatched, fiercely curling around the assembled Blackburn wall into the net.
— Villa Underground (@avfc_vilr) September 15, 2018
The games climax cannot over-shadow what was a very tame away display.
For long periods we lacked any clear plan. It remains a mystery what our style of play actually is or is intended to be.
If it’s supposed to be attacking, then our lone striker remains isolated and our ‘counter’ a sloth like experience to endure.
Defensively, we remain undecided on our who will play where. Bruce’s selections across the back four were just the latest incarnation, which did little to inspire confidence during the telling moments.
The midfield still lacks identity, purpose and consistency. We still pin our hopes upon individual traits such as Grealish’s technical qualities or the drive of a player like McGinn. This is fine on paper, but it painfully lacks balance.
Bruce cuts an entrenched figure, convinced that a turnaround will occur, but without doing anything radically different to convince anyone to believe him.
For instance; Abraham played to devastating effect with Kodjia as the supporting act at Bristol City. Yet at the first opportunity to benefit from this partnership ourselves, in a Villa team starved of goals, Bruce opts to bench Kodjia and isolate the debutant loanee youngster.
The midfield and defensive faces seem to be stuck on a ‘randomise’ setting for every game.
Where we need combative players like Whelan or Jedinak, we don’t always see them, nor are they necessarily deployed in the right way.
Where we need speed, flair and technical ability, we don’t seem to see Hourihane, Bjarnason (inexplicably not in the squad vs Blackburn by the way) or the newly acquired El Ghazi.
Whereas we do see a tired perseverance with the likes of Albert Adomah, despite a chronic lack of player form and Bruce having approved to move the player on to Middlesbrough [unsuccessfully] on deadline day.
The Villa Underground is on the record as despising “in-season” changes of manager. Sometimes it can be necessary, but at other times it puts a club back into the unknown realms of “transition”.
Therefore, it’s so frustrating to watch Villa looking so ill-prepared for a promotion push, despite having the personnel to achieve it. And, ultimately, this is a results business.
Bruce now lurches into a home tie against Rotherham not necessarily ‘having’ to win, but needing to in order to win back support by adopting a positive, organised and assured style of play. Whilst reactionary groups of Villa fans will call for a manager’s head game by game, the more measured folk will generally see the bigger picture; but even they have a cut-off point.
Whilst we supporters can have our say, the new owners will inevitably be keeping a watching brief on proceedings.
After a relatively muted backing upon the arrival of Sawiris and Edens’, their silence since suggests that the new regime won’t be providing any ongoing public commentary as was the style of now minority shareholder Tony Xia. Given the cringeworthy Twitter antics of Xia [until recently], this can only be a good thing.
However, the minimum target is promotion.
There is no PR release, tweet or press conference is required to outline that fact.
Given the players at Bruce’s disposal, the loans acquired and the fact that Villa are into a third meandering season in the Championship, we need to begin looking like a side realistically capable of achieving it.
Fail to do this, the managers future will be decided for him.
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