Upon reflection: Steve Bruce’s second half substitutes weren’t just curious, they were downright awful.
A lot can be said about the players’ performance on Saturday against Bolton Wanderers.
Birkir Bjarnason looked slow and immobile dealing with counter attacks. Conor Hourihane was utterly anonymous in the middle of the pitch. When he goes, so too does the club sometimes. 20-year old James Bree understandably struggled in his second league start of the season, switching over to left back and dealing with Bolton’s best attacker, Sammy Ameobi.
Outside of the opening 15 minutes, Lewis Grabban struggled to dictate play; he even missed a point-blank sitter. James Chester and John Terry had off-days and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Ahmed Elmohamady’s performance.
They are the ones playing and ultimately deserve the bulk of the criticism, but Steve Bruce’s set-up for the second half mitigated any chance of Aston Villa mounting a comeback. A comeback, mind you, that looked entirely possible going into halftime. Yeah, the snow was a factor. It sucked the life out of the club’s ability to play on the ground. Long balls resulted and Grabban failed to win a singular aerial duel.
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In a match such as this where possession looked disjointed, Keinan Davis should have been Bruce’s #1 go-to at halftime for his potential hold-up play in the snow. He instead withdrew Conor Hourihane on the 53rd-minute, bringing on Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, making his first league appearance since January 1st, on to play striker in a revised flat 4-4-2.
This all made sense, but the player selection was not the correct one. It was unconscionable to bring on the 19-year old speed demon to partner a forward who struggled to build any possession in the final third. On a snow covered pitch, Villa were not going to beat a structured Bolton side with over-the-top through balls. Some time passed and Aston Villa did not look any closer to finding their much-needed goal.
On came Scott Hogan to replace one of Villa’s ‘okay’ performers, Albert Adomah. He went up top to partner RHM while Grabban reverted to left wing. Still not Keinan Davis. Bruce swapped a a winger with a striker, and a striker struggling in the air, with one who would struggle even worse given his size limitations.
Ten minutes passed and Villa were simply desperate at this point. Robert Snodgrass was withdrawn for Keinan Davis on the 81st. Villa were playing with four strikers on the pitch with two central midfielders. Davis went to center forward as Hepburn-Murphy switched over to right midfield.
The same Hepburn-Murphy Bruce brought on 20 minutes beforehand to play striker.
The players deserve to bear the brunt of Saturday’s criticism, but the second half was a jumbled mess that severely limited Aston Villa’s chances of recovering a lead. It’s part of the reason supporters get so frustrated during some these bad losses.
It might not have been entirely preventable, but you can’t convince me the second half strategy was conducive to winning.