After plying their trade for a few years in the Championship, Aston Villa climbed their way back to the top tier of English football in 2019 under Dean Smith. Initially, they had a slow start to life back in the Premier League in the 2019-20 season, but they managed to hold on and were able to escape relegation by a margin of one point. In the following campaign, Aston Villa exceeded expectations and finished 11th in the Premier League, with the highlight victory of their season being a 7-2 thrashing of Liverpool at Villa Park.
Going into the 2021-22 season, there were huge expectations from Aston Villa, even though their brilliant captain Jack Grealish had left the club for Premier League giants Manchester City. Aston Villa were one of the most active clubs during the transfer window, bringing in the likes of Danny Ings, Emi Buendia, and Leon Bailey, among others.
Three months into the new campaign, Aston Villa find themselves two points above the relegation zone, with any hopes of securing European football now looking bleak. They sit 16th in the Premier League with three wins, one draw, and seven losses in 11 games. A run of six straight defeats in the league finally convinced Villa hierarchy to part ways with manager Dean Smith and install former Liverpool man Steven Gerrard at the helm. Gerrard’s tenure as the manager of Scottish giants Rangers was remarkable. Not only did he lead the Gers to break their arch-rivals, Celtic’s dominance over the Scottish Premiership, but he also did so in a record-breaking manner. Rangers won their 55th Scottish top-flight title without losing a single game under Gerrard.
Gerrard’s new job at Aston Villa comes with huge pressure. Their upcoming five games following the international break include games against Brighton, Crystal Palace, Manchester City, Leicester City, and an away trip to Gerrard’s former club, Liverpool. Gerrard would be hard-pressed to fix Aston Villa’s multiple issues and transform the side akin to the last season.
Let’s analyze Aston Villa’s stats this season to find out the areas where Gerrard would need to focus on, in order to propel the club back to the top half of the table.
Just as most managerial changes, one of the first orders of business for Gerrard would be to fix Villa’s issues at the back. Although individual performances from Villa’s backline have not been poor, their effort as a unit seems to have declined, especially inside their box. They are often overrun in the midfield, and their full-backs often fail to support the defenders. They have conceded third-highest goals in the league, and their last clean sheet was in the game against Everton, back in September. In the stats above, we can see that defensively they were almost on equal terms to their opponents, Southampton. A long ball over the Villa defense early in the first half was struck just from outside the edge of the box by Armstrong, and Villa were behind 0-1, failing to mount a comeback. Their pattern of going behind early in recent matches also needs to be fixed.
In terms of expected goals, Aston Villa are placed at the 17th spot in the league while their expected goals per 90 puts them at the 18th spot, indicating they have failed to create quality goal-scoring chances often this season. Both Ings and Watkins have failed to make an impact in the games where Villa have fallen behind. Gerrard would need to figure out how to get the most out of Villa’s frontmen.
In terms of match tempo, Villa are 17th in the league, while in terms of open play possession for more than 45 seconds, they are 19th, indicating that they have been unable to dictate the play during the times they have held possession.
Both summer signings, Bailey and Buendia, have failed to produce the performances that can impact the games for Villa. Villa’s lack of smart passes highlights that they are facing creativity issues. They are bottom of the league in terms of successful smart passes and average successful smart passes per match. Gerrard could also look to integrate youth players with the potential to freshen up the squad. Perhaps a change in energy could work for the benefit of Villa’s attack and creativity.
Gerrard’s exploits as the Rangers’ manager will put huge expectations on his shoulders. While Villa have no lack of talent at their disposal, Gerrard would need to make them operate as a unit if they are to improve in their upcoming games, a feat which would be tough to achieve, given their current form and position of the teams they are going up against. Aston Villa could also benefit from tactical tweaks combined with a boost in morale.