Aston Villa have announced the arrival of Steven Gerrard as their new head coach, replacing the outgoing Dean Smith after three successful years in Birmingham.
The Villains currently find themselves down in 16th in the Premier League table, just two points above the drop zone and have lost their last five games in a row, as well as 18 during the current calendar year which is more than anyone else along with Southampton. It was a run that led to the dismissal of Smith who had previously taken his boyhood club to promotion to the Premier League in 2019, before two successful survival attempts and a Carabao Cup final.
His sacking precedes a new era for the club though, and the man chosen to take over the reins and guide the team to survival once again is Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard.
The ex-Reds captain made over 700 appearances for the Merseyside-based club during his playing career, leaving in 2015 to join LA Galaxy after 26 years at Anfield. After just a single season in America, he chose to hang up his boots at the age of 36, choosing to transition into coaching. Gerrard began his managerial career with Liverpool, taking charge of the under-18’s for a season before being handed a huge opportunity to take over at Scottish giants Rangers in the summer of 2018.
Gerrard made his senior managerial debut in a Europa League tie with Macedonian side Shkupi, overseeing a 2-0 victory and starting off what would prove to be an immensely successful spell in Scotland. Two successive second place finishes saw him gain valuable experience in management, and would eventually go up a level in 2020/21. Under his guidance, Rangers would enjoy a record-breaking season that saw them win the Scottish Premiership for the first time in a decade going unbeaten in the process, becoming the first team to reach 100 points since rivals Celtic while simultaneously ending the Celts’ nine-year run of winning the title.
Gerrard’s Rangers team won all 19 of their home games at Ibrox and equalled the league record of 26 clean sheets in the campaign, while also setting a new British record by conceding only 13 goals in their 32 wins and six draws. Unsurprisingly, Gerrard was hot property going into the summer.
Villa had a long list of options to replace Smith, one that included plenty of more experienced choices such as Ralph Hasenhüttl, Graham Potter, Roberto Martínez, Lucien Favre, Paulo Fonseca and Kasper Hjulmand. Despite this, their decision to take a punt on what remains a largely inexperienced name in comparison has brought reasonable doubt over whether he is ready to take the step up to Premier League management. After all, fellow ex-England international midfielder and Premier League legend Frank Lampard did so much more prematurely and was something which didn’t end well, having made the step up to Chelsea after just a season in management with Championship side Derby County and finding himself out of a job since his sacking from the Blues, also recently turned down a move to strugglers Norwich City.
Gerrard seems to be a different case, however. Three years in the Scottish Premiership that brought unimaginable success is a much better platform to build on, and if he can implement a style that fits the players he has at his disposal whilst simultaneously proving he is capable enough to build with the club and adapt, it has all the ingredients for a successful spell.
But Just How Successful Could He Be?
Gerrard has won plaudits since the moment he stepped into management, drawing praise for the way he developed players in the Liverpool academy with the likes of Neco Williams, Rhys Williams, Harry Wilson, Rhian Brewster and in particular Curtis Jones all going on to either play for Liverpool’s first team or achieve relative success in the Championship. This sort of philosophy is something he took into his time at Rangers, with the likes of Alfredo Morelos, Glen Kamara, Ryan Kent and James Tavernier all truly shining.
Tactically, Gerrard had to adapt his style to find his winning formula. When he arrived, he implemented an organised 4-3-3 shape using two aerially solid centre backs in Connor Goldson and Nikola Katić along with two flying wing backs in Tavernier on the right and Borna Barišić on the left. There was an emphasis on aggression in defending, but importantly developed a clear and well-drilled structure that transitioned from 4-1-4-1 without the ball.
They would play a high line, using the midfield to cover the space in front of the defence and utilising man-orientated pressing. The wingers would occupy positions in the inside channels, retaining a horizontally compact line and simultaneously discouraging passes out to the opposition full backs.
Morelos as the lone striker would meanwhile have an active role in pressing that saw him block the middle of the pitch while moving to pressure the centre back in possession, looking to force him into an error. Going forward they would look to build from the back. The lone #6, usually Ryan Jack, would drop close to the centre backs to form a triangle or even in between them to form numerical superiority. The wingers would come inside to allow the wing backs to push forward and overlap, while the remaining central midfielders would position themselves on the outside of the centre backs to give them a better view of the pitch and receive the ball without their backs to goal.
There were variations of this idea to, including the midfielders swapping roles with the wingers or the wingers with the wing backs.
Despite this, the start of his tenure saw Rangers make their worst start for almost three decades, and a tweak to his system was required. He switched to 4-2-3-1 around the halfway mark of his first season in an attempt to combat their difficulties in breaking down opposition defences, and is something which he worked on going forward, soon changing to an unorthodox version of his 4-3-3. This saw the replacement of two natural wingers with two #10’s, and coincided with a significant upturn in form.
When Rangers now looked to play through opponents, this brought two additional options to move between the lines with the intention of finding pockets of space, along with Morelos who naturally dropped off to show for the ball.
The more narrow front three guaranteed plenty of options in the final third for combination play as well as others midfielders who looked to break forward, and with the low block being a real nuisance to Rangers with many opponents playing it, allowed them to break it down far more effectively. Additionally, it made the centre of the pitch tighter and allowed them to get more numbers around the ball in defensive transition and surround the opposition faster when they lost the ball. The two #10’s would push up to form a line with Morelos and shift from side to side as a unit, creating a clear and narrow 4-3-3 shape that made it difficult for the opposition to play into midfield. In midfield, they would utilise quick and aggressive pressing from multiple directions to help them stop counter attacks and regain possession, doing so in a way that would aim to keep the ball away from central areas and out wide, as well as away from danger to reduce opposition passing options while also making it easier to press intensely near the touchline.
Pressing in particular is something that became a lot more consistent as the system progressed. They would always look to force the ball wide before pressing with multiple players to either win the ball back high up the pitch and create a goalscoring opportunity or force the opposition to play it long where the aforementioned Goldson and Katić, Filip Helander or Leon Balogun were comfortable enough to hold their own in the air and clear the danger. Their energetic and intelligent press was a key reason behind their defensive dominance.
They would also make use of positional rotation, with midfielders filling in for wing backs when they pushed forward and wingers filling the gap left by the midfielders by coming inside, among many other alterations. Rangers have been an extremely well-coached side that meant every player knew their role and made them almost impenetrable. The way in which they have defended is perhaps the pride and joy of what Gerrard instilled during his time in Scotland, having taken over a Rangers team that conceded more goals than 7th placed Motherwell in 2017/18 and turning them into one of the best defensive outfits in the league’s history.
One of the major problems Villa has faced so far this season has been their defending, something which will disappoint those in charge given they had the 7th best defence last season with 46 goals conceded. In comparison, only Norwich City and Newcastle United have conceded more this time around, two sides who occupy places in the bottom three. Tyrone Mings has been underwhelming with Axel Tuanzebe and Matt Targett also struggling to match their performances in previous seasons and although Ezri Konsa has mostly impressed in isolation, they have been shipping goals at an alarming rate including at least three in three of their last four games.
They have seemingly forgotten how to defend as a team, with Smith looking to open up more often leading to a subsequent drop off in and around their own penalty area. They have equally had a lack of support in front of the back four, with wide players and midfielders not offering enough protection and leaving the full backs exposed. Gerrard will be tasked with turning this around having taken over at Rangers in a similar predicament, where he quickly made them a far more competent proposition at defending and is something which will be a big positive.
The centre of the pitch has been a huge struggle too, and stems back to them not upgrading that area in the summer. The likes of James Ward-Prowse and Will Hughes were both looked at but neither ended up at Villa Park, with Southampton being unwilling to listen to offers for their captain who would eventually agree a new five-year deal, while Watford would sell Hughes to Crystal Palace towards the end of the window. This meant Villa were light in that position, having to rely on Douglas Luiz to stay fit along with the inconsistent Marvelous Nakamba and Morgan Sanson who’s not had much of a look in yet, as well as there being a lack of balance with them all being runners besides John McGinn who brings more to the table technically.
However, if Gerrard adopts the way he set up in Scotland, his preferred 4-3-3 shape could benefit this Villa squad. Matty Cash would slot into the right back spot with ease owing to the freedom Gerrard allows his full backs to get up the pitch, making a name for himself as one of the best attacking full backs in the Championship while with Nottingham Forest, along with Targett who enjoyed a similar role at Southampton and then Villa. Konsa, Mings, Tuanzebe and Kortney Hause are all comfortable enough in the air and if Gerrard can restore an element of organisation to the backline, goals in their own net should dry up. The amount of talent they possess in midfield and attacking areas will help their cause to. Luiz if able to maintain an extended spell in the team would be able to play the role Ryan Jack did at Rangers, while McGinn is good at breaking forward in attacking phases.
Sanson could also feature more prominently as the third midfielder. As far as the attacking midfielders go, Emi Buendía is one who could massively profit from Gerrard’s arrival. The Argentine brought plenty of hype following his £30m move from Norwich City in the summer, with his performances in the Championship last time out warranting the Player of the Season award as well as winning plenty of plaudits for his creative output in both the Championship and the Premier League. An incredible 119 chances created, 18 big chances created and 58 take-ons completed last season along with 14 goals from an xG of 11.77 and 16 assists from an xA of 12.51 made him hot property, also creating the fourth most chances during his maiden campaign in the Premier League with 83 in 2019/20.
There was an enormous Jack Grealish-sized hole in the Villa attack after his £100m departure to Manchester City and Buendía was chosen to fill that void. He’s yet to reach the heights he managed at Norwich, but could fit into one of the #10 roles in Gerrard’s system perfectly with the freedom it brings for him to drift into wide areas or come inside. He could be used similarly to Ianis Hagi, a natural #10 who possesses the control to operate in tight spaces, or Ryan Kent, a dribbler who likes to get at his defender, with Buendía capable of either role. On the other side, Leon Bailey will likely be chosen to play a similar role to Sheyi Ojo, who likes to use his pace to get in behind and shoot at goal as much as possible, but he is also capable of playing like the aforementioned Kent.
The other wide players available are Anwar El-Ghazi, Trézéguet, Bertrand Traoré and Ashley Young who are all natural wingers but could adapt their games, the same too for Ollie Watkins who is another potential option with his versatility from playing as a winger throughout the early stages of his career with Exeter City and Brentford. However, it is much more likely he retains his place up front and compete with Danny Ings for the central striker role. Morelos was often the most advanced of the front three in Gerrard’s Rangers team, spearheading the structured trio with a crucial responsibility when they were out of possession. He would chase down balls and press defenders and the goalkeeper as mentioned, as well as assisting the wingers with pressing out wide. Both Watkins and Ings like to press from the front, with Ings in particular chasing defenders regularly to force them into a mistake attempting 1,664 pressures over his three seasons at Southampton. Watkins himself was favoured by Smith for his high energy and ability to set the tempo and has already attempted 741 pressures during his time at Villa, and both will fit into Gerrard’s philosophy of aggressive defending. Watkins and Ings are both brilliant finishers too, and could even be more consistent in front of goal than the occasionally unreliable Morelos, who would constantly be involved in the creation of chances as well as finishing them, running the channels and having an impressive relationship with his wide players which was a prevalent part in the way Rangers attacked.
Crucially, the difference in quality and depth compared to many top teams in the Premier League means Villa won’t be expected to break down low blocks anywhere near as much as Rangers were, and could allow them to attack with more fluidity against teams that will look to threaten their goal.
Upon his arrival at Villa Park, CEO Christian Purslow spoke of Gerrard’s coaching ambitions, philosophy and values and how they match those of Villa, as well as valuing his experience in player development and the prospect of progressing the club and leading them into a new era. Creating a more recognisable and defined style will be on the agenda, first and foremost making the defence a more stubborn and resolute unit and then making them play on the front foot wherever possible, with his tactical flexibility seeing him switch between variations of 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 ensuring the entire squad can be used with a whole host of combinations. Gerrard’s fondness for developing and looking to integrate youth could also be a big gain for the young Jacob Ramsey who has impressed when given opportunities this season, along with Carney Chukwuemeka, Cameron Archer and Jaden Philogene-Bidace all being highly rated at Bodymoor Heath.
Aston Villa want to be back competing with the big boys, qualifying for Europe and challenging for trophies. Gerrard has a talented squad at his disposal, and he will be tasked with getting the most out of them once again. If he can prove he is ready for the step up to Premier League management by keeping them up, the sky will be the limit for the 41-year old.
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