It would be fair to say Steven Gerrard was not everyone’s first choice replacement for Dean Smith at Aston Villa.
The ex-Liverpool and England captain’s coaching CV was impressive – but short. There was no doubt about his experience on the pitch but off it, his sole managerial role at Rangers raised valid questions whether he could arrest an alarming nosedive in form at a time when Villa had dropped three points away from the relegation zone.
“I’m delighted with the start we’ve made, I’m feeling positive and optimistic,” he tells Sky Sports. You can see why.
Four wins from seven, with forgivable – and narrow – defeats to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City have totally changed Villa’s trajectory. Not only that, their style has been moulded in the will of their new manager as quickly as he could have ever hoped. A side leaking plenty of goals became a compact defensive unit almost overnight, while still scoring 10 times in those seven games so far.
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Gerrard is a meticulous operator and a football obsessive, who will stick a non-League game on if there’s no Premier League or EFL scheduled that day. He knew as much as he could about his new squad before walking in the door. That certainly helped implement such rapid change.
So did his awareness of those questions from a fanbase still holding some affinity towards Smith, the Villa born-and-bred figure who led the club back to the Premier League only two years ago?
“I think when a local guy in Dean, who’s done a really strong job and built a lot of good things, left the club, there were a lot of supporters who had mixed feelings about it,” he says. “I really admire the support the fans gave Dean, and the job he did. The admiration and respect they did for the job he did, the support they gave me too has been fantastic. We’ve had to earn some, perhaps more, of that by coming in when we did and who we’ve replaced.
“It was really important we hit the ground running – we had very little time to get an identity and philosophy across to the players, but credit to them, they took it on board extremely well, and we got off to a real positive start. They’ve been fantastic so far.
“I had to know an awful lot about the team, thankfully I watch a lot of football, I’m interested in a lot of teams, and managers, and styles. To get a job at this level, you’ve got to have a real detailed catalogue of the players individually, the team, what’s gone on before and where you can take it moving forward.”
That knowledge has helped him to quickly set about improving the performances of some Villa players whose turnaround feels like more than the result of a new manager bounce. Gerrard is reluctant to suggest his midfielders have the most to gain from his experience in the position, but look at Marvelous Nakamba. Jacob Ramsey. Even John McGinn.
It’s difficult to find a Villa player who has enjoyed such a rapid rise as that of Nakamba, and when it was announced earlier in December he would be ruled out for several months by a knee injury, the news felt much more of a blow than it would only weeks before.
“Marv deserves all the plaudits he had before his injury,” Gerrard says. “There were a few areas of his game which we wanted to improve, he’s been playing in a certain style for a long time and we had to make sure he could adapt to certain things we want.
“We’ve been working with him opening his shoulders a lot more, scanning a lot more, his receiving skills. He’s got a lot of attributes for us, so it’s about developing and supporting the ones he needs certain work in.”
Although not quite uniquely qualified, Gerrard has a rare understanding of what it means to be a homegrown hero too. Here is a man who, arguably, put his relationship with Liverpool and its fans ahead of a bigger trophy cabinet as a player. Who better to mentor Ramsey, a central midfielder with an eye for goal who joined the Villa academy as a six-year-old.
He has blossomed since the appointment and made and a third of his 18 Premier League starts under Gerrard. His new manager is acutely aware not only of the significance of Ramsey’s relationship with Villa, but also the importance of the fanbase identifying with one of their own.
“We want to polish him up, give him the support he needs, he knows there’s a pathway,” Gerrard says. “Dean was a big part of that and the previous staff, we can’t take all the credit for him, but he was someone who was on the fringe and getting certain starts, for us he’s really grabbed the shirt. The challenge now for him is keeping hold of it, because people will want it off him.
“We treat people on what we see, and he’s shown with his training performances and in matches he’s ready now. He’s grabbed that shirt, and he’s one of our own in terms of being a local boy. That’s important, they feel that responsibility and connection to the supporters.”
So if Gerrard has already rejuvenated Villa at both ends of the pitch, what now? The Danny Ings conundrum may prove his next challenge. The club were yet to see the best of £25m summer arrival before the new manager set foot in the door and not much has changed since.
Smith’s desire to forge a partnership between Ings and Ollie Watkins played a part in his demise, but the latter’s three goals in seven, coupled with two Ings injuries, has made their relationship less of a problem for Gerrard since his arrival.
At some point though, there will be an expectation to get more out of a player who was the Premier League’s second-top scorer less than two years ago.
“I welcome the challenge to get the best out of both players,” he says. “When they’re both 100-per-cent fit and firing, they’re two top Premier League players and have proved they can score goals at this level.
He’s had a couple of setbacks so far so he’s still searching for the best Danny Ings who’s a nightmare around the box. That’s what I’m still looking and trying to get, but it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.
“Aston Villa are stronger for having both options available; does that mean I’m going to force them to play together? No. Are there games where they can play together? Yes. The conundrum for me is an exciting challenge, and I’ve got to try to find the right answers and solutions. If one of them is injured or was to go, that doesn’t make Aston Villa stronger or better at all – so we should appreciate both of them.
“From Danny’s point of view, he’s had a couple of setbacks so far so he’s still searching for the best Danny Ings who’s a nightmare around the box. That’s what I’m still looking and trying to get, Ollie’s there I think in terms of his form and consistency, but it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.
“Danny’s really honest, that’s one thing I admire about him. He’s been frustrated by being injured when we arrived, and then he came back, wasn’t himself, got a bit of a knock which set him back again, and he’s had a throat issue as well which held him back as well.”
With Gerrard, and Villa, welcoming in 2022 at the Brentford Community Stadium on Sunday are there any resolutions he’ll be taking into the new year after what has to go down as a pretty successful 2021?
He says: “It’s not something I really take much interest in these days, apart from being the best that I can be.”
They say you should make sure any New Year’s resolution is achievable. With the way things have started for Gerrard at Villa Park, that certainly seems it.
Source : Sky Sports