Things can change quickly in football. At the start of October, following an extremely rare victory at Old Trafford, Aston Villa were just four points off the top of the table. Given his standing with the fans and his achievements at the club, Dean Smith looked secure in his job. Five weeks and five consecutive defeats later – with the club just two points above the relegation zone – the board took the relatively divisive decision to part ways with one of the most popular managers in their history.
A little over a month later Smith was in the opposing dugout as Villa beat Norwich and secured a fourth win in six matches since his departure. What were rapidly dwindling hopes of qualifying for Europe are suddenly rekindling under Steven Gerrard. Not only has the new manager won over the minds of a group of players who were hurting, but he has also secured the hearts of many among the fanbase.
Some supporters were sceptical about his appointment. He was unproven in the Premier League and apparently had designs on another job – although that narrative may be driven more by the media than the man himself – and, while Villa’s recent results had been poor, many fans hoped Smith would be given more time. Yet, a month on, only Liverpool and Manchester City have won more matches than Villa since Gerrard returned to the Premier League.
Coincidentally, City and Liverpool are the only two clubs to have taken points from Villa under Gerrard. And there were encouraging signs in these defeats that suggested the team was in safe hands. Despite losing 2-1 to City, fans at Villa Park were in a strangely buoyant mood after a spirited second-half display. And, while they were outplayed in a 1-0 defeat at Anfield, the game was ultimately won by a penalty decision – or two – that the Villa camp deemed unjust.
Gerrard has immediately lifted the levels in almost every department, not least in terms of intensity and organisation, from virtually zero at the time of Smith’s departure. Injuries played their part but, for one reason or another, the team had lost its way. Having struggled to forge an identity when Jack Grealish was absent through injury, any semblance of that identity was lost completely when he left for City in the summer.
The buzzword from Gerrard has been “distances”. He acknowledged in his very first press conference that it had become too easy for opponents to get at Villa’s back four, not least due to a lack of positional discipline in midfield. It’s not something that is easy to quantify, but the team’s shape out of possession and movements as a unit are clear to see. Previously there was a randomness to the pressing and defensive set-up.
Those distances are now consistent. If the opposition moves the ball from one side to the other, they are tracked, from a distance, by a Villa team that is offering far fewer routes to their defence. Gerrard’s style at Rangers was to play with a narrow front three, at times closer to a Christmas tree formation. The wide forwards then drop deep out of possession and the wide midfielders of the three push out to support the full-backs.
The full-backs also have a pivotal role to play, with Matty Cash and Matt Targett required to provide the width in attack. Cash’s energy has been particularly useful. While Norwich are not the toughest of opponents, Gerrard made it clear after the 2-0 win this week that this performance was the closest to how he wants his side to play.
The new manager was understandably cautious about changing too much too fast – and the team had to sit deep against City and Liverpool – but, if you look at the average positions of the full-backs from Smith’s final game at Southampton to Gerrard’s first against Brighton, and then on to the game at Carrow Road, the differences are abundantly clear. Villa are playing higher up the pitch in possession as a whole but those full-backs are pushed much further forward. Against Saints only centre-backs Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings were deeper than Cash in terms of their average touch maps. Fast forward to Norwich and Cash was Villa’s fourth most advanced player.
Such a switch in mindset at full-back is only possible if it comes in tandem with a more organised midfield three, and it’s night and day in that regard. John McGinn is the obvious talisman for Villa, but his gung-ho approach in midfield had been detrimental to the team at times. Reining in his enthusiasm and instilling some more discipline when out of possession has enabled the team to be more compact and actually helped McGinn to be more involved when Villa recover possession.
Marvelous Nakamba, who is now out for two months with a knee injury, has been showing a composure in possession that was absent from his game before; while Jacob Ramsey is also seeing more of the ball. A midfield that was often bypassed due to the fact that the shape was non-existent is now playing a far bigger part in the team’s overall play, both in and out of possession. The statistics bear this out. Villa’s starting midfielders have gone from averaging a combined 115 touches per game under Smith to 165 under Gerrard. Accurate passes from this trio are up from a meagre 58 to a still modest 95.
It’s no coincidence that Villa’s five most improved players since Gerrard’s arrival are Targett, McGinn, Nakamba, Ramsey and Cash – based on our statistical ratings. In possession at least, they have essentially formed a five-man midfield. It seemed obvious and a little simplistic to suggest that the position in which Gerrard played would enjoy the greatest improvement under his stewardship, but here we are. Villa’s problematic midfield is being fixed by a player who was among the best in the business. Overlooked and cast into the shadows when Grealish was the centre of attention, Villa’s midfielders are now having their time to shine.