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Talking Points: Is Steven Gerrard’s tactical prowess underrated?

Jacob Ramsey and Philippe Coutinho combine to rescue a point for Aston Villa, coming from two down against Manchester United - do you think Gerrard’s tactical nous has been underestimated?

Aston Villa v Manchester United - Premier League
Pictured: Aston Villa stars Emiliano Buendia, Jacob Ramsey and Philippe Coutinho celebrate Saturday’s equaliser against Manchester United.
Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Steven Gerrard’s men demonstrate their character and courage as they fight back to earn a point against Ralf Rangnick’s Red Devils in the Premier League.

A Bruno Fernandes brace set Manchester United on course for three points on the road, but Gerrard’s substitutions and tactical changes proved consequential, with new boy Philippe Coutinho and young talent Jacob Ramsey linking up late on to secure a well-earned point.

Let’s take a look at some of the main talking points from an enthralling game under the lights at Villa Park...

A first half lacking intensity and full of mistakes...

Aston Villa’s downfall and primary reason for conceding goals this season typically lies with low-tempo, lacklustre periods of play, and individual mistakes - and this game would be no different.

Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez is often referred to as ‘Mr. Consistent’ in the Villa side, ever since he joined the club in the summer of 2020 from Arsenal, due to his remarkable performances each week where he produces top save after top save to keep the ball out of the net.

However, a collector’s item of an event would occur in the early minutes of this game, when the Argentine was caught out by a short Manchester United free-kick. Alex Telles played a disguised lay-off into the feet of his teammate Bruno Fernandes, who in-turn produced a relatively poor shot at goal; one that everyone in the stadium would expect Martinez to claim comfortably.

A moment of madness would follow though, with the ball catching the number one off-guard, and after passing through a sea of claret and blue, and blue and white bodies in the penalty area, it ended up past Martinez’s flailing body and over the line for 1-0.

Aston Villa v Manchester United - Premier League
Pictured: Emiliano Martinez desperately trying to claw the ball back out of the goal after failing to keep out Bruno Fernandes’ strike.
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

The Portuguese goalscorer would race off into the corner celebrating in-front of the Holte End, as Martinez looked for an excuse to chalk the goal off; claiming striker Edinson Cavani impeded his vision. Referee David Coote quickly waved away any of the home side’s protests, however, and Villa Park sat in raw dismay after witnessing their side concede such a disappointing goal so early on.

The opening goal set precedent for the 20-25 minutes that followed, as it seemed to take the stuffing out of the boys in claret and blue, with the Red Devils certainly on top and in full control of proceedings.

Villa looked as if they lacked belief and confidence out of possession, showing no desire to press their opponent with intent and were often caught out of position or slow on the turn; something young winger Anthony Elanga seemed to take advantage of up against Matty Cash and Ezri Konsa.

The transition between midfield and attack was too slow, allowing United to get bodies behind the ball to deny their opposition. Play would therefore come to a standstill time after time, with very few supporting runs being made by players such as Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins for the creative players like Emiliano Buendia and Jacob Ramsey to exploit and pick out.

There was a resounding lack of intensity in the Villans’ play and this period in the game was far from satisfactory from the home side. Whilst things picked up ever so slightly in the final quarter of an hour of the half, Steven Gerrard would be left with a a bad taste in his mouth at the break.

An outburst of emotion...

Morgan Sanson experienced an undesirable first eleven months at Aston Villa, facing a huge injury blow that kept him out of action for a while, as well as a reported falling-out with former manager Dean Smith, with the French midfielder nowhere to be seen in starting line-ups or match-day squads.

So, when Steven Gerrard was appointed in Smith’s place in mid-November, the number eight would have seen the change as an opportunity to reinstate his inclusion within the squad, and start getting more minutes under his belt.

In that time, the former Olympique de Marseille man has appeared in five games, starting just one, but when John McGinn picked up his fifth yellow card of the season in the last Premier League game away to Brentford, a vacancy needed filling in the Villa midfield, and all eyes turned to Morgan Sanson.

Team news broke at approximately 4:30pm GMT on Saturday evening, and as expected, Sanson’s name was on the team-sheet. The 27 year-old had a big game ahead, and with his fellow midfield counterparts bang in-form, namely Jacob Ramsey and John McGinn, he really needed to impress Steven Gerrard if he was to keep his place for the next game away to Everton at Goodison Park.

Like the rest of the team, Sanson had a fairly underwhelming start to proceedings, and was second-best to many of the balls, but as time passed he composed himself and, particularly after half-time, started to positively influence the game for his team, winning his duels and progressing the ball well into the team’s forward players.

That was until around the 67th minute when the midfielder played an inaccurate ball that was intended for centre-back Tyrone Mings, but was far too short and in-turn landed at Fred’s feet. The Brazilian would retain the ball briefly before laying it into Fernandes, who struck home a powerful effort off the bar for his second of the game.

Sanson left the defence with it all to do, and unfortunately they could not prevent the away side from doubling their lead. The McGinn-replacement was clearly at fault for the goal - an annoying come-away from what was a highly dignified performance on the whole.

Aston Villa v Manchester United - Premier League
Pictured: Morgan Sanson takes his frustration out on a water bottle after being substituted for his mistake that led to Manchester United’s second goal.
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

He was immediately substituted just moments after the game’s second, replaced by star loanee Philippe Coutinho, and took out his frustration on a set of water bottles that were in his path to the dugout, hurdling one into the lower section of the Trinity Road stand.

The anger was understandable, and whilst some saw it as an unprofessional outburst, many appreciated the reaction, recognising Sanson’s desire to impress and perform well for the team, manager, and fans. He was quick to apologise on social media after the game, but received only positives feedback from the Villa faithful, who admire players that work hard and show passion.

Steven Gerrard’s magician...

All the media headlines over the last several days have focused on the arrival of Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho who joined Aston Villa from Spanish side FC Barcelona last week, and will remain at the club until the end of the season.

Coutinho will reunite with Steven Gerrard, who played together for many years during their time together at Liverpool. This successful relationship is thought to be a deciding factor as to the loanee’s decision to come to Aston Villa, with his former captain outlining the size and ambitions set by the board and owners, which ultimately persuaded the 29 year-old to the club.

The 2020 UEFA Champions League winner was not deemed match fit in the game’s press conference, with Gerrard saying the following the day before:

“He’s not match fit because over at Barcelona he’s been doing a lot of individual training and in small groups. He also had a Covid situation.”

Therefore, if the star signing was to have a dream debut against Manchester United, it would have to be from the substitutes bench, after the line-up confirmed Coutinho’s starting eleven absence.

The overriding feeling around Villa Park was that of distress and frustration as the game entered 75 minutes played, with fans disappointed at the conceding of two highly avoidable goals. The atmosphere and jubilation soon increased, however, as their new signing, Coutinho, stood on the sidelines, poised to enter the action.

His welcome before the game was remarkable, and was met by plenty of applause and appreciation when warming-up too, but his introduction to the game was outstanding, and seemed to spark life into the Aston Villa side with 15 minutes to go.

The Brazilian was involved straight away, with his claret and blue teammates finding him at every opportunity in order to inject some quality into the attacks, and it would only take him eight minutes to make an impact.

After linking up excellently with fellow substitute Carney Chukwuemeka around the box, executing one-touch interplay with the Villa youngster, the Brazilian’s movement led to Fred poking the ball directly to Jacob Ramsey in the middle, who delivered a powerful left-footed strike past David De Gea.

Aston Villa v Manchester United - Premier League
Pictured: Jacob Ramsey firing in his side’s first goal of the game.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Villa Park erupted, with Coutinho grabbing the ball from the goal and Jacob Ramsey spurring his home fans on, the final 10 minutes of play looked set to be both exciting and action-packed. The home support’s energy was matched by their side’s fast-paced play, as Gerrard’s side had full control of the game and looked well on their way to get an equaliser in which their second-half performances undeniably deserved.

The impact of the Head Coach’s substitutions and tactical alterations was resounding, as he created what appeared to be an offensive overload down the Villa left, with Lucas Digne and all of the Aston Villa midfielders occupying that same area of the pitch. This sort of change is risky, but can certainly pay off, with the intention to overwork particular opposition defenders and leaving them with too many players to mark.

Eventually, United’s defence would break, and after a scintillating run and through ball by the ever-effective Emiliano Buendia, Jacob Ramsey would pick it up and find Coutinho in the box, who fired home to tie the game at 2-2.

Aston Villa v Manchester United - Premier League
Pictured: Philippe Coutinho celebrating his first Aston Villa goal on his return to the Premier League, with teammates Matty Cash and Carney Chukwuemeka.
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

It was a truly remarkable last 15 minutes from Aston Villa, who seemed to step their game up the second their new number 23 entered the field. The Brazilian oozed class every time he touched the ball, and his impact was met by chants and cheers from the home crowd from the moment he was introduced to when the final whistle sounded.

Accompanied with the vast amount of excitement surrounding the Brazilian’s signing, there was also plenty of doubt, with the forward being somewhat of a cast-away during his time in Spain, where he could never replicate the impressive form that won him the £143 million move away from Merseyside. However, his 15 minute cameo in his debut game for Aston Villa cleared all the doubt from anyone’s mind and silenced any premature critics, proving his talents have not diminished over the years.

Steven Gerrard will look for another impressive performance from his little magician next time out at Goodison Park against an out of form, manager-less Everton. Coutinho will look to win his first start in a claret and blue shirt, and further make his mark as a standout Premier League player, with Villa fans hopeful of something similar.