Steven Gerrard needs to find Aston Villa identity missing since exit of Jack Grealish

Opening games against Brighton and Palace crucial for new manager with daunting fixture list looming on horizon

“I like a challenge, I like a risk,” said Steven Gerrard in his first interview as Aston Villa manager. Joining a club 16th in the league and who have lost their last five games equates to both. He left Rangers four points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership while Villa could be in the relegation zone after his first match in charge.

The fixture list can look daunting, with Manchester City, Leicester and Liverpool all among his first five opponents. It underlines the importance of making an immediate impact against Brighton on Saturday and then Crystal Palace next week.

With much of his squad away on international duty, Gerrard admitted: “We’ve got very little time to prepare in terms of having the full group.” A manager who wants his team to be “entertaining and attractive” is nonetheless likely to build from the back.

Villa have conceded 13 goals in their last five games. “I'd like to improve on the structure of the team from a defensive point of view, out of possession, our distances, our shape, and what we do to regain the ball,” Gerrard said.

The sacked Dean Smith ditched his experiment with a back three after the 3-1 defeat at Arsenal. He dropped his captain Tyrone Mings for the 4-1 loss to West Ham. With Ezri Konsa, who was suspended then, back from a ban, Gerrard could pick last season’s regular partnership as a duo for the first time since August’s win over Newcastle.

Gerrard cited Ashley Young as a player he knows well from his England days and it will be instructive if he brings the veteran in for Matt Targett, who has had a dreadful season at left-back. While overlapping full-backs formed an integral part of Gerrard’s game plan at Rangers, that was often against inferior teams and it may be hard to give them a similar licence to go forward when he also wants to make his new charges more frugal.

Gerrard described his Rangers team as “a pretty good idea” of his philosophy. That could give him an awkward decision in attack. Rangers tended to play 4-3-3. Villa’s decision to reinvest some of the proceeds of Jack Grealish’s sale on Danny Ings has gave them a strike partnership: however, the newcomer and Ollie Watkins have showed few signs of an understanding so far.

Watkins has only scored once this season with Ings on the pitch; arguably his best performance came against West Ham, when the former Southampton forward was absent. Ings, who Gerrard knows from Liverpool, could be available again on Saturday, setting up a choice between the pair.

Aston Villa 1 West Ham 4: player ratings

If the other two designated replacements for Grealish, Leon Bailey and Emi Buendia, have delivered too little so far, the roles as inverted wingers could suit each. The broader question is whether Gerrard can inject cohesion and chemistry into a team searching not just for a system but for an identity after Grealish.

Smith’s style of play was progressive but he found a difficulty this season — and arguably in the second half of last — in marrying that with solidity. There are three obvious areas for improvement. While Smith added set-piece coach Austin McPhee to his staff, and Gerrard has kept him, Villa have conceded six goals already from dead-ball situations.

Goalkeeper Emi Martinez had the Premier League’s best save percentage last season and has one of the worst this year. And Villa’s best plans have soon been undone. They have conceded in the third and seventh minutes of their last two games; a better start is imperative if Gerrard is to begin with a statement of intent.

Updated: November 17th 2021, 3:07 AM
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