The Steven Gerrard era at Aston Villa started just as he would have wanted: a 2-0 win over Graham Potter’s Brighton and Hove Albion in front of a sold-out Villa Park, thanks to late goals from Ollie Watkins and Tyrone Mings.
Here are the three main talking points from a dramatic first game under new management.
The defence had been a glaring issue this season under Dean Smith. With twenty goals conceded in just eleven games and only three clean sheets to boot, it has been quite the contrast to last year’s rigid and reliable backline that was only bettered in clean sheets by Manchester City and Chelsea.
In the lead-up to his first match in charge, Steven Gerrard made it clear that addressing this defensive problem was his short-term priority, saying:
But one thing I would like to instil and improve on is the structure of the team from a defensive point of view, in terms of out of possession in terms of our shape and what we do to win the ball back.
The new manager made a decisive point regarding how, off the ball, this Villa squad has been structured poorly. Many fans also noticed how the other team was given too much time and space on the ball and that the midfield was too open, giving the opposition the opportunity to venture through the side at will and create a number of chances.
However, this was not the case on Saturday. How often did Brighton get a sight on goal? Rarely. How many saves did goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez have to make? Very few. Maybe it goes without saying, but still supporters are discussing how Gerrard made an instant impact on the way Aston Villa play out of possession, sanctioning Brighton to just six goal attempts all game, and just two on target. A huge improvement.
The claret and blue side never really looked like they would concede, bar a Tariq Lamptey opening on the stroke of halftime that brought about a fantastic reactionary stop from Martínez.
Brighton racked up a total of 63% possession over the course of 90 minutes, but couldn’t break the resolute shape that Gerrard had set out and installed.
Tyrone Mings was particularly impressive in the heart of the defence, barking out encouragement and commanding his teammates throughout the match.
A limitation of Gerrard’s system during his time at Rangers FC was his defending from corners, as he tends to rely on man-marking, with a free man that zonally marks the dangerous areas/players—typically the penalty spot. This can be dangerous in the modern game, as it over-relies on the aerial ability of players in one-on-one scenarios, and Villa, who are a smaller side than most, are at a risk as a result.
However, Mings showed that this style of play can be effective. The Aston Villa captain won absolutely everything that was thrown at him as the free man in the box, beating the big Brighton back three in the air at every opportunity. It was a colossal performance from the number five, which was of course topped off with the game-killing second goal.
Another thing that stood out as part of Gerrard’s system out of possession was the role of the wide centre-midfielders, Jacob Ramsey and John McGinn. The coach instructed this midfield duo to press the ever-threatening wing-back pairing of Lamptey and Marc Cucurella whenever the two were in possession, giving them very little time on the ball.
This decision prevented Brighton from playing the way that typically sees plenty of joy for them to create chances from. Instead, it forced the away side to play inverted and through the middle, which was also well guarded by the Villa lines.
Steven Gerrard certainly got a lot of things right with his team choice and instructions on Saturday, and conjured up an effective solution to the defensive concerns he had raised at the start of last week. This will give the Villa faithful plenty to be excited about in the coming weeks, as he continues to implement his philosophies and playing styles onto the group.
Rolling back the years
When Ashley Young was brought on in the first half against West Ham two games go in place of an injured Ramsey, many questioned Smith as to why, given there were more appealing options that were more suited to the position.
Young would go on and put in a disappointing performance for the 75 minutes he played, leaving many Villans doubting his ability and physical capability at the ripe age of 36.
Therefore, when Steven Gerrard introduced the full-back to the pitch with 15 minutes to go, plenty of head scratchers could be seen around Villa Park. At this stage, the game was calling out for a match winner, or at least a man who could take the game by the scruff of the neck. Most Aston Villa supporters would have argued Ashley Young wasn’t that man.
But he certainly was!
Having replaced Emiliano Buendía at left wing, Villa fans were treated to an Ashley Young from the past. Reminiscent of the days under Martin O’Neill, Young put in a admirable display that shows his experience is extremely useful at this level, and he definitely isn’t past it.
His assist for the opening goal of the game was Young’s standout moment during his short cameo on the pitch. With Jacob Ramsey withdrawn for Anwar El Ghazi, Young found himself the middle of the pitch once again. He may have been signed on a free this summer, but the former Villa captain still showed excellent composure deep in his own half, executing a tidy piece of footwork and a perfect ball through to the scorer Ollie Watkins to top off a fine piece of play.
As the game entered the latter stages, Brighton had more of an urgency about them, trying desperately to get a hold of the ball and mount some attacks. The number 18 had other ideas, however, and used his know-how and expertise to keep his Villa side in possession and—more importantly—in the lead. His appearance was short, but was certainly sweet. Class is permanent.
After the game, Gerrard was quick to highlight just how important Ashley Young was in the game and how he will continue to benefit the side for the remainder of the season.
He was ready today and the big thing about Ash is he can play right-back, left-back, he can play as an eight, a 10 or wide. That’s what good players allow you to do as a manager, allow you to play in different ways.
Young is a fan favourite due to the history he has with the club, and the new boss is a big admirer of the man too, saying, “He’s been absolutely outstanding since we walked through the door”, and describing him as an “an outer-layer of the staff”, indicating he is not just of use on the pitch, but a critical member of the club off it as well.
His versatility could be key for the development of the younger members of the squad. Given Gerrard’s track record of promoting youth players to the first team, Ashley Young may well play a critical part in this process.
Young’s contract expires at the end of the season, and it will be interesting to see whether he continues his career as a player or makes the difficult decision to retire. If he does choose to hang up his boots, would you like to see him stay at Villa Park and take up a role in the backroom staff, possibly as a coach, or maybe get involved in the academy?
A moment of magic
As the clock struck 84 minutes, the likelihood of Steven Gerrard’s perfect start at Aston Villa slowly started to peter out, and it seemed as if his side would have to settle for a point—unless someone was to step up and produce a moment of magic. Up stepped Ollie Watkins.
As Brighton began surging forward in the closing stages of the game, Villa fans around the stadium assumed would be a nervy finish. But as a low cross was scrambled away by Marvelous Nakamba to the feet of Ashley Young, the prospect of a threatening counter-attack loomed for the home side, which was met accordingly with shouts of encouragement from the home support to move the ball up the pitch.
Young maneuvered his way past a couple of Brighton midfielders before releasing Watkins down the left with a well executed through pass. The side in blue and white had pushed bodies forward, looking for an opener themselves, leaving Leon Bailey and Anwar El Ghazi open and in support as Brighton were left struggling in a 3v2 situation.
It was all about Watkins making the right decision as he approached the edge of the Brighton box. Do you play El Ghazi in behind? Or switch it to Bailey who is open on the right? Or go alone?
The former Brentford man went with the last, and it availed.
After cutting in on his favoured right foot, the number 11 outwitted the onrushing Yves Bissouma before unleashing a well struck effort into the corner, leaving ‘keeper Jason Steele with no chance. Not only did it give Aston Villa a lead, but Watkins executed a fantastic individual goal.
The Holte End has seen some incredible goals scored in their direction over the many years, and this one from Watkins was no different.
Villa Park erupted as the goalscorer raced towards the famous stand before sliding on his knees and pounding the badge on his chest in celebration. Teammates soon gathered to show appreciation for a truly magnificent goal.
The English striker has had questions asked of him recently due to his lack of goals and several sub-par performances, but he could face no criticism for this display.
Aside from his goal, the 25 year-old had a relatively quiet night in front of the net, but his desire off the ball and relentlessness to win it back was remarkable. Watkins is seemingly a player that can shine in the side under Steven Gerrard, who admires hard-working, driven individuals—similar to himself.
On the face of it, Watkins is a perfect piece to the Gerrard puzzle in the role of an inside forward. Ryan Kent and Kemar Roofe, who were deployed most in this position under Gerrard, saw a lot of success at Rangers. Watkins boasts similar attributes and capabilities to these two, that make him the right man for the job, such as spatial awareness and an inclination to win the ball back.
He was clearly out to impress on Saturday afternoon, and it is hard to say he didn’t. Gerrard will be hoping Villa’s top scorer from last season can add to his two goal tally next time out against an unbeaten in seven Crystal Palace side.
Can Aston Villa make it two wins from two under their new manager, or will there be signs that there is still plenty of work to be done?