A steely determination and big ambitions; Aston Villa and Gerrard could be a match made in heaven, writes Ryan Baldi.
Steven Gerrard was a 15-year-old prodigy dreaming of a Liverpool debut the last time Aston Villa won a trophy, and he was still captaining England the last time the club finished a season in the top half of the Premier League table.
Now, Gerrard has been named the new manager at Villa Park, replacing Dean Smith at the helm. And the Liverpool legend’s task is first to consolidate the Midlands club’s top-flight status, then to execute the next phase of the ambitious owners’ plans and restore Villa to former glories.
Villa currently sit in 16th position, just two points outside the relegation zone. A run of five successive defeats – with their last three points recorded against Manchester United at Old Trafford in September – put paid to Smith tenure in charge of his beloved boyhood club.
With 20 goals conceded in 11 games so far in the 2021-22 campaign, Villa have the third-worst defensive record in the league, with only bottom two Newcastle (24) and Norwich (26) having shipped more.
So Gerrard evidently has his work cut out, but the 41-year-old appears already to have a plan for how to stabilise the wayward ship over which he has assumed command.
“I obviously want to be as entertaining and attractive on the eye as we can be, but one thing I’d like to improve is the structure of the team from a defensive point of view – our shape, what we do to regain the ball,” he told VillaTV.
Rangers conceded just 13 goals in 38 on their way to the title last season, 16 fewer than any other side in the league.
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And if there is one thing Gerrard has demonstrated beyond doubt in his managerial career to date, it is the ability to build a solid defence.
The season before he took charge at Ibrox, 2017-18, Rangers finished third in the Scottish Premiership, with 50 goals conceded in 38 games. By the end of his first campaign, the goals-conceded figured had nearly halved, to 27. The following term it fell again, to a league-joint-best 19. And last season, Gerrard’s Rangers romped to a first title in 10 years with 102 points, 92 goals scored and just 13 conceded.
Preferring a 4-2-3-1 shape, Gerrard set up his Rangers side to play on the front foot. The manager encouraged creativity in the final third, often fielding three No.10-type attacking midfielders behind a lone striker and asking his full-backs to provide width.
As adventurous as they could be in possession, though, and as his side’s defensive record would suggest, Rangers were disciplined and immaculately drilled off the ball. And a sizeable chunk of the credit for the Glasgow club’s impressive organisation, it seems, can be apportioned to Michael Beale, the first-team coach who has followed Gerrard from Ibrox to Villa Park.
“His attention to detail and defensive organisation is incredible and you’ve seen that in Europe,” former Rangers utility man Andy Halliday, who now plays for Hearts, told The Athletic of Beale.
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“It’s the clarity and the role he gives every single player within the system. It’s refreshing as a player to go into a game and know exactly what’s expected of you. If you don’t follow through on that, then you know it’s your fault.”
It’s not just on the pitch that Gerrard and his team demand discipline, either. The former Liverpool captain fostered a profitable degree of accountability and togetherness at Rangers via the implementation of rules and guidelines around conduct; banning phones in the canteen, for example, and insisting players sit together, rather than separate out into cliques.
Renowned for his restless engine during an 18-year playing career as one of Europe’s great midfielders, Gerrard expects the highest possible fitness levels of his charges. Running challenges were set multiple times each day in training, with each player expected to expend maximum effort and coaches watching on to ensure there was no slacking.
So Villa’s players can expect to find in their new manager a coach who sets and maintains high standards, who demands utmost effort and discipline, but who also has a track record of developing his teams and players over the course of years and espouses a style of play that will, if all goes to plan, get the best out of a talented crop of players who have thus far underachieved this season.
“I like a challenge. I like a risk. It’s something I’m really looking forward to getting into,” Gerrard said of the Villa job, as he prepares to take on high-flying Brighton at Villa Park on Saturday in his first game in charge. “This club will suit me because I know the fans are very passionate and there’s a demand and pressure to win. That’s something I’ve lived with since I was 17.”