No hiding place for Steven Gerrard as pressure intensifies at Aston Villa

Gerrard’s Villa started with a terrible loss to promoted Bournemouth, and he is under scrutiny having stripped Tyrone Mings of the captaincy.

WHEN GÉRARD HOULLIER first appointed Steven Gerrard as Liverpool captain, the first question he asked was about the guy whose armband he had just inherited, Sami Hyypia. 

“When I left the office, I looked around for Sami, but he had gone home”, wrote Gerrard in his 2006 autobiography. “Pity. I wanted to address the issue as quickly as possible. I didn’t sleep much that night. Feelings of pride mixed with concern over how Sami would react. Sami hadn’t been playing well, so maybe taking away the armband would allow him focus on his own game, rather than the team. Still, it can’t be nice to have such an honour taken away. I’d be devastated.” Hyypia found Gerrard the next day and assured him that he was fine with the decision.

soccer-liverpool Hyypia and Gerrard, at the Fifa Club World Cup in 2005. Source: PA

It would seem Gerrard’s anxiety for Hyypia 19 years ago is greater than his anxiety for Tyrone Mings today, from whom he stripped the Aston Villa captaincy to give to John McGinn at the start of the season. 

That Mings may not be first-choice to partner Ezri Konsa following the arrival of Diego Carlos isn’t a controversial opinion – though some Villa fans query whether McGinn is an automatic starter these days too – but it draws more heat and noise around Gerrard at a time he could do without it. 

It was a brave decision by Gerrard, in the Yes Minister sense of the phrase.

Villa started the season with a wretched 2-0 loss at promoted Bournemouth last weekend, which continues their decidedly patchy form since Gerrard took over last season. Of the 28 Premier League games Gerrard has taken charge of, Villa have won 10 and lost 13. That’s a points-per-game average of 1.25, which is nowhere near good enough for a club with the second-highest wage bill outside of the Big Six. Also, of the 10 games they won under Gerrard last season, only three came against sides in the top half (against Leicester and twice against Brighton) while six of the remaining seven wins came against sides that finished in the bottom five. 

Gerrard has now erected his own lightning rod at a time he has a lot to prove, as Mings’ reputation will swell with every defeat he’s not involved in.

Paul McGrath’s status among Villa fans is summed up by the fact they call him God, and his latest decree came on Twitter this week. “Tyrone Mings is good enough for Aston Villa, in my opinion he ticks all the right boxes, so how do you lose the armband and your place in seconds . You don’t, so who said what to who? No one cares get him in the team. Respect.” 

Gerrard was naturally asked about Mings after the loss to Bournemouth. 

“When Tyrone is back at his best and looks me in the eye and shows that he’s ready to play, he’ll get opportunities. The easy thing to do after a defeat is look at the people who weren’t on the pitch. We had enough quality on the pitch to win that game. I’m confident of that.” 

A “flabbergasted” Micah Richards reacted to the comments by telling the BBC, “It’s not like Gerrard to sort of throw him under the bus. He’s normally straight to the point, direct. You feel as though he’s a manager who will deal with anything internally, in the dressing room. He didn’t need to do that.” 

True, Gerrard probably didn’t need to do it, but in one way it’s a classic Gerrard effort at creating adversity in which to provoke a response. Gerrard’s genius as a player was his heroic responses in adversity, to the point where you wondered if he sought the adversity too often.

His only failings came when there was insufficient adversity: he didn’t have the metronomic, repetitive qualities of some of the central-midfielders he compared himself with. The writer Adrian Duncan put it well on a past episode of Behind the Lines: Gerrard could deliver a knockout blow as well as anyone, but he lacked the “ferocious jab” of Keane and Scholes, and later Xavi and Iniesta. 

Whatever about the merits of the provoke-reponse-provoke cycle in Gerrard’s playing days, there’s increasing evidence that the same tactics don’t work for managers these days. 

Take this from Liverpool assistant manager Pep Lijnders, who has written a diary of the 2021/22 season titled Intensity. 

“You can’t compare the player with confidence to the same player without. Isn’t this the target for each coach in each sport in each age? Create confidence with your speeches, your sessions, your team protection.” 

Better to instill confidence than provoke exhibitions of character. 

premier-league-2022-2023-package Steven Gerrard. Source: PA

This season is definitive for Gerrard’s managerial career. Winning the Scottish title unbeaten was a great achievement, albeit one that will not always be valued in England. Last season was under-the-radar and adequate, but Villa have since invested significantly in signing Carlos, Philippe Coutinho and Boubacar Kamara so there are no hiding places this season. 

Gerrard must also work without his highly-rated assistant Michael Beale for the first time, as he left during the summer to take the QPR job. Defeat to Bournemouth was a dreadful start that exhibited some recurring issues. Mings has been dropped but Villa still look weak on set pieces, while Coutinho, whom Gerrard loved at Liverpool, took his late-season slump into the new season’s opening day. 

The squad also desperately lacks width and Gerrard gives a strong impression of not knowing his best team. Should Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins start together up front? Or maybe just Ings? Or perhaps Watkins by himself? Or maybe neither, and Emi Buendia can play as a false nine? Or should Buendia play at all? 

Gerrard tried all of those combinations in the final weeks of last season, always while accommodating the underperforming Coutinho. He started with a 4-3-3 against Bournemouth, playing Coutinho off the left and Leon Bailey off the right and Ings up front. (Liverpool, it might be noted, only truly found their groove in that 4-3-3 when they sold Coutinho.) 

Coutinho played as a number 10 behind Ings in the second half with Bailey and Buendia either side of him, but it brought little improvement. Watkins might come back into contention for today’s game against Everton. 

In spite of his success at Rangers, Gerrard is out to prove himself as a manager in England, and the scrutiny begins in earnest with today’s televised game against Everton. 

Steven Gerrard against Frank Lampard…history teaches us neither stay in the same place for very long. 

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Gavin Cooney

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