With Steven Gerrard named Aston Villa boss, we look at the five areas he must prioritise in his first Premier League managerial job.
Gerrard has left Rangers to sign a three-and-a-half year deal at Villa Park, with the Midlands side 16th in the Premier League, on the back of five straight defeats which prompted the sacking of Dean Smith.
With tricky fixtures on the horizon, there is no time to waste for the former Liverpool midfielder. Here is what will be in the in-tray when he arrives at Bodymoor Heath…
- Aston Villa’s fixtures: Tough games on the horizon
- Premier League table: Villa just above drop zone
- Live football on Sky Sports | Get Sky Sports
Connect with the fans
Image: Gerrard will have to win over some Aston Villa fans early on
Not every manager can be a lifelong supporter – in fact, Smith’s love for the club he led was a unique occurrence in today’s game – but after Smith followed Jack Grealish out the door in the space of three months, a large part of Villa’s soul went with it.
Now, soul does not equal results, but it certainly helps. It helps sell tickets, it helps sign players, and it should increase patience for what is still a sizeable project.
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After a few years of drudgery straddling the end of their Premier League days and the start of their Championship stay, Smith and Grealish partnered to bring fan-feeling back to Villa Park.
Villa fans will want a manager to show love and affinity for a club they feel, realistically or not, should be challenging for Europe. Gerrard’s partisan tenacity at Rangers suggests he will connect with the supporters, but there is a justified feeling that Villa is just a useful stepping stone to the Liverpool job. He will have to make all the right noises.
Gel new signings
Image: Emi Buendia has struggled for form this season
Smith’s LMA statement after the sacking suggested he felt hard done by.
“I felt that with important players soon returning to full fitness we would achieve a top-half finish,” he said, no doubt referring to the fact summer signings Leon Bailey, Emi Buendia and Danny Ings have played only 34 minutes together over two games. That was 22 minutes as Arsenal turned a dominant 2-0 lead into three, and 12 minutes while 3-0 down against Watford. Not exactly ripe circumstances to judge.
CEO Christian Purslow insisted these three signings, totalling nearly £100m, were carefully measured to make up for the over-reliance on Grealish. But their use, albeit not all at once, proved to be Smith’s downfall.
Bailey, in and out of the squad due to injury, has started only two top-flight games, and despite looking devastating in spurts in the opposition half, is yet to show the off-the-ball discipline needed to be a top-half Premier League winger.
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Buendia looks completely shorn of confidence, crowded out in a central position despite demanding a £38m-price tag by impressing off the right wing for Norwich.
And Buendia’s positioning was forced upon him to accommodate Ings in a 3-5-2, and though Ings will always contribute with goals, it was to the detriment of last season’s top-scorer Ollie Watkins.
With so much potential in that front-line, Gerrard will call it a welcome headache. Smith would beg to differ; the swapping of one for three – Grealish for Ings, Buendia and Bailey – has thrown Villa’s shape off, and Gerrard will have difficult selection decisions to make.
Sort the defence out
Image: Only two sides have conceded more goals than Villa this season
Having registered 15 clean sheets last season, bettered only by Manchester City and Chelsea, Villa’s back-line have conceded 20 goals in their opening 11 games. Only Newcastle and Norwich have leaked more.
It is strange, given personnel has remained consistent, but the change to a back three left them top heavy, particularly in wide areas.
Image: Villa have struggled at both ends of the pitch this season
Gerrard will need to make Villa hard to beat first and foremost, and he has the players to do it. They have an England regular in Tyrone Mings, while his understudy Ezri Konsa is on better form over the past 18 months. Matty Cash is one of the few bright sparks from Villa’s dismal season, while Matt Targett and Emi Martinez, who won players’ and supporters’ player of the year of 2020/21 respectively, cannot have become bad players overnight.
It is difficult to pre-empt Gerrard’s defensive approach in the Premier League, given Rangers’ possessional dominance against 10 out of 11 Scottish Premiership teams each year.
They have averaged 63 per cent possession this season, conceding just 2.4 shots on target per game. Villa’s average possession has been 47 per cent, conceding 4.6 shots on target per game.
Image: Gerrard is used to dominating games in the Scottish Premiership
The defence is not totally to blame given their shell has been cracked open in the last couple of games without Douglas Luiz, and his return cannot come soon enough; he is on track to return for the Brighton game at Villa Park on November 20.
Continue to promote youth
Image: Carney Chukwuemeka is among Villa's biggest academy prospects
Whether or not Villa fans saw it as good business, to receive a British-record £100m for an academy graduate in Grealish was testament to club’s youth set-up.
Villa’s academy continues to produce – they won the FA Youth Cup last season – and Smith was not shy in giving youngsters a chance.
Take 20-year-old Jacob Ramsey, completely at home on the ball in the Premier League. He is now a permanent first-team fixture, while 19-year-olds Jaden Philogene-Bidace and Cameron Archer have been given minutes.
One player the club’s hierarchy and Gerrard will need to focus on is Carney Chukwuemeka, widely regarded as Villa’s top academy prospect.
The 18-year-old midfielder, who already has five senior appearances under his belt, has just 18 months left on his deal, but the understanding is talks are yet to take place about a renewal. With top clubs reportedly circling, alarm bells should be going off at Villa.
Over the next 18 months, fans will also be keeping a keen eye on midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Lamare Bogarde, and right-back Kaine Kesler in particular. Gerrard has plenty to choose from.
Win one of the next two games
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Southampton’s win over Aston Villa in the Premier League
That Villa have gone for a name like Gerrard should not surprise many; Purslow wanted Thierry Henry in the Championship before Smith in 2018.
But looking at Villa’s position, it is certainly a risk. There are managers with Premier League experience available, and with Villa hovering above the relegation zone, to go with a man without that top-flight managerial nous suggests the hierarchy feel a relegation battle is unrealistic.
It is a tad naive.
Up against Brighton (H) and Crystal Palace (A) next – two sides that have lost only twice each this season – Villa need a victory to stop the rot. After that, it is Man City (H), Leicester (H) and Liverpool (A). Villa could realistically be 10 games without a victory by mid-December, at an overall rate of well under a point a game. Suddenly a relegation dogfight becomes a realistic prospect.
This is not the time to experiment. Gerrard will need results, pronto.
Aston Villa’s upcoming fixtures
November 20: Brighton (H)
November 27: Crystal Palace (A)
December 1: Man City (H)
December 5: Leicester (H) – live on Sky Sports
December 11: Liverpool (A)
December 14: Norwich (A)
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