Tuesday, March 21

Gerrard’s early moves have Aston Villa dreaming big

The 41-year-old Liverpool legend has won hearts at Villa Park with his clear, forward-thinking approach as manager. With former Merseyside teammate Philippe Coutinho supplying the creative spark, the Birmingham club is keen to reposition itself up the table

The 41-year-old Liverpool legend has won hearts at Villa Park with his clear, forward-thinking approach as manager. With former Merseyside teammate Philippe Coutinho supplying the creative spark, the Birmingham club is keen to reposition itself up the table

About 10 days ago, Pep Guardiola cited Aston Villa as one of only five clubs Manchester City had come up against this season — Liverpool, Arsenal, Brighton and Leeds, the others — that had looked to play adventurous football. Coming from Guardiola, this was high praise. His City beat Villa 2-1 last December, but something about Steven Gerrard’s side appears to have impressed the Spanish tactician. Considering that it was only Gerrard’s third game in charge, Guardiola’s observation paints the former Liverpool captain’s managerial skills in even better light.

Villa had lost five straight Premier League matches and was just two points above the relegation zone when Gerrard left Scottish champion Rangers to replace Dean Smith, sacked as manager in November. The Birmingham club had struggled after selling captain Jack Grealish to City for £100 million — a British record fee — in the summer.

Expansive approach

During Smith’s reign, a lot of Villa’s play had been reliant on Grealish’s talent and drive. From depending largely on one player, Smith tried to implement a new, more expansive approach without his star player, but it left the team more open — it had conceded the third-most goals in the 2021-22 season when Gerrard took over.

The 41-year-old inherited several challenges in his first coaching role in the Premier League, but has already made a difference. Immediately after his arrival at Villa Park, the club climbed from 16th to 10th, thanks to a run of four wins in six games, with narrow losses against City and Liverpool, the league’s best teams.

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“We were close to taking a point out of the City game as well,” Gerrard said. “The Liverpool game was slightly different — they dominated for large parts. But I think we gave a good account of ourselves and made them extremely nervous in the latter stages.”

“I had confidence and belief that we could come in and have the impact that we’ve had,” said Gerrard, who brought several of his coaching staff with him from Glasgow giant Rangers.

“The players deserve the credit for going and carrying those performances out.” Although those performances were followed by a couple of dips in form, Villa has risen to ninth, seven points outside the top eight.

Under Gerrard, Villa has won eight games, lost six and drawn two in the league. It has beaten Brighton, Crystal Palace, Leicester, Norwich, Everton, Southampton and Leeds — but just as creditable as the wins has been the quality of play on view on several occasions.

Clear and progressive

Gerrard’s Villa has a clear, progressive tactical approach, in stark contrast to the period under Smith. Big-name English managers of recent vintage haven’t covered themselves in glory, looking tactically inept — Gary Neville and Frank Lampard are two examples — but Gerrard, both at Rangers and at Villa, has coached a modern, well-defined style.

In 2021, Rangers completed an unbeaten Scottish Premiership campaign — Gerrard’s Invincibles — with 102 points, winning a 55th title (its first this decade). While it’s unlikely that Gerrard will have this scale of success any time soon in England, there are already echoes at Villa of what he did with Rangers tactically. He continues to use variants of the 4-3-3 system, with the 4-3-2-1 (Christmas tree) and 4-3-1-2 (Philippe Coutinho behind Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings) being his most favoured formations.

The side looks to build patiently from the back with the ball, with the flying full-backs providing the attacking width. Without the ball, it takes up a compact mid block, pressing only when the opposition reaches the centre-line. Where the pressing during Smith’s period was often uncoordinated and in the opposition third, which left it open to central breaks and counters, Gerrard’s side looks to control the central spaces and funnel the opposition wide. Villa’s average number of pressures per game has doubled in its own third (66.4 to 132.5), risen significantly in the middle third (116.1 to 152.8) but gone down in the attacking third (55.1 to 44.5).

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Most importantly, Gerrard has ‘buy-in’ from the players, even when the results haven’t come. Villa endured a stretch of three poor match-days — a loss against Watford followed a defeat at Newcastle United and a 3-3 draw against Leeds. “We’ve played three teams below us in the last three games and we’ve taken one point, that’s not good enough,” Gerrard had said at that stage. “That’s on me. I realise that things need to change, we need to improve and we need to do it fast. We have to face the music and move on.” And move on, Villa did — the barren patch was followed by a 2-0 win over Brighton, a sparkling 4-0 demolition of Southampton and a 3-0 rout of Leeds.

While several Villa players have been on top form, January recruit Coutinho has drawn special praise from Gerrard — a former teammate of the Brazilian at Liverpool. The Barcelona loanee has been directly involved in six goals (three goals and three assists) in four home league appearances for Villa and scored away at Leeds. “We’ve got Phil [Coutinho] back fit and in a really good place — he was back to his Liverpool form,” Gerrard told the BBC. “The other players have got a lift from him. It is about having players running in behind for him and Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings were untouchable at times too. When Phil is in the mood he is a world class player. He probably finished my career a couple of years early, he’s the reason I’ve got screws in my knees and groins!”

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An option to buy Coutinho for £33 million (which reportedly can be negotiated down) at the end of the season was included in Villa’s loan deal with the Catalan giants, and Gerrard is hopeful that the Brazilian can extend his stay in the West Midlands. “All good teams have game-changers who the opposition are really concerned about before a ball is kicked,” Gerrard told Goal. “Phil has that status. I don’t control transfer fees or wages. All I can do is give my opinion to … the owners.”

Gerrard’s other acquisitions in the January window included defender Calum Chambers from Arsenal and former Barcelona and PSG left-back Lucas Digne. These players, added to Watkins, winger Leon Bailey, playmaker Emiliano Buendia, midfielder Jacob Ramsey and full-back Matthew Cash, give Gerrard plenty of exciting talent to work with. The club has ambitions of becoming a top-six side — the spending in the transfer market shows that the owners are behind the project — and Gerrard, so far, looks equipped to give the side a shot at this goal. Challenges remain, Gerrard’s own dream of managing Liverpool at some stage not the least of them, but Villa is trending up.

“Internally, we’ve got a lot of ambition, we’ve got a lot of top players that aren’t satisfied being in the middle of the table and we want to aim high,” Gerrard said. “No one in this group likes to be beat. It’s about resetting after every result — win, lose or draw — and focusing on the next one. We always analyse games, we always go over it and try to take the positives and look at areas to improve. We move forward, we have to persevere and we have to improve these players.”

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