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Flying full-backs and Klopp-style pressing: What Aston Villa can expect from Gerrard

8:49 PM MYT 14/11/2021
Steven Gerrard Aston Villa GFX
The former Rangers boss has taken influence from managers he's worked under in the past, but will also lean on a close ally for tactical detail

There is something particularly enticing about Steven Gerrard becoming the new Aston Villa manager.

Beyond the pairing of a Premier League legend with an historic English club, this is a match with huge risks but with potential rewards on both sides.

Villa and Gerrard are each stepping into the unknown, gambling on one another’s promising position in their respective development.

In theory, it is a good match. Gerrard's remarkable 2020-21 season at Rangers - an invincible campaign that ended Celtic's nine-year monopoly in the Scottish Premiership – suggests he is ready to test himself at Premier League level, something he needs to do before Liverpool can trust him as Jurgen Klopp's successor.

As for Villa, a progressive club with serious ambition to make it into the elite, they needed a manager who would continue Dean Smith's work towards adventurous attacking football – just with greater attention to detail.

It is fair to say Smith was not a particularly adept tactician. His game-plans often lacked structure, particularly when Villa attempted to build possession out from the back, as reflected in their poor record without Jack Grealish throughout Smith's three-year tenure.

Smith was a superb Villa manager, lifting the club from 14th in the Championship to a position whereby anything less than a European challenge was deemed unacceptable. In that respect he is a victim of his own success at Villa Park, but despite the perceived harshness of his dismissal, Villa were right to look for a tactical upgrade.

In Gerrard, and his close ally Michael Beale, Villa may have got what they wanted.

Beale is widely considered to be the ideas man behind Gerrard. A first-team coach at Rangers who Gerrard has brought with him to Villa Park, Beale worked in the academy at Chelsea and Liverpool before Gerrard took him to Scotland in 2018.

Gerrard's tactical philosophy

The new Villa manager has made it clear in interviews that his tactics are based on all of his former coaches, from Gerard Houllier to Rafa Benitez, which perhaps gets to the crux of the issue - Gerrard is not someone with a clearly identifiable or dogmatic playing style.

Rangers have changed a lot over the last couple of years, although there are core principles implemented by Gerrard and Beale that shed light on Villa's future.

Generally speaking, he attempts to dominate possession and press high up the pitch, in keeping with the fashion of the times. In this respect he is most like Jurgen Klopp, under whom Gerrard was briefly mentored as Liverpool academy coach.

Villa will press high up the pitch, aiming to retain compression between the lines via a high defensive line and intricately choreographed positional training.

Rangers, however, were happy to drop back when required and, as Gerrard says, there is some Benitez influence behind the club's impressive goals against tally of 13 last season.

How this translates to a mid-table Premier League club is hard to know. Rangers were always going to dominate possession and territory in the SPFL, and at Villa things won't be quite so smooth.

Nevertheless, on the whole Villa will try to suffocate teams and work patiently through them, rather than counter quickly – just like Smith attempted before him.

Two 10s, flying full-backs, and variety in midfield

In terms of the formation, Rangers have switched between a Liverpool-like 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1, and a 4-3-2-1 over the last couple of seasons, finding most success with that latter system – in which the wingers move so far inside they essentially play as dual No.10s.

This forms an important part of Rangers' pressing, shutting off passing lines through the middle. It also allows for quick one-touch football between that narrow front three and creates space for flying full-backs.

A narrow formation inevitably draws the opposition infield, making room on the outside for full-backs, often found via sudden diagonal switches at Rangers.

It is telling that last season Rangers right-back James Tavernier scored 12 goals (albeit more than half came from the penalty spot) and assisted nine more, while left-back Borna Barisic amassed seven goal contributions. Full-backs are king for Gerrard; the clearest indication we have that he is a Klopp-ite at heart.

The midfield is harder to predict, such has been the variation in style, but Gerrard will expect very hard-working players and intelligent pressers through the middle in order to compliment a system that prioritises possession.

How good a fit is the Villa squad?

There is clearly a lot of joined-up thinking at Villa. Recruitment over the last few years has been suited to Smith's style of football, and therefore Gerrard's approximate similarity ensures the current squad is well-placed to absorb the new ideas.

In defence, confident ball-playing centre-backs like Axel Tanzuebe and Ezri Konsa should flourish, while Matt Targett and Matty Cash are much better going forward than defending. Gerrard may wish for an upgrade at left-back, but it is not a major priority.

John McGinn has the energy and positional sense to drive a Gerrard team forward, and Douglas Luiz's calming presence from the base of midfield will go down well. A January move for James Ward-Prowse would complete the trio.

In the attacking areas, Leon Bailey has experience as a pressing forward at Bayer Leverkusen and can play across the front line, while Emiliano Buendia should excel as the other winger/No.10.

Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins were both signed for their pressing abilities so, again, they fit the Gerrard mould very nicely.

Gerrard's in-tray

Theoretically, sorting Villa out should not be a problem in the short-term. This is a top-10 squad currently languishing on a run of five consecutive defeats and a new-manager bounce alone ought to lift them closer to the mean.

Villa's biggest flaw this season has been defending set-pieces, having conceded six in the Premier League – 30 per cent of their total. It bodes well for Villa fans that Gerrard's Rangers conceded just one set-piece goal in the whole of the 2020-21 season.

Beyond that, what Villa need most of all is more precise structure; a plan for where to stand and how to move in possession, which Beale and Gerrard will be striving to provide.

There are plenty of unknowns, plenty of reasons to believe it could go wrong, but from a tactical perspective Villa and Gerrard are a good fit.