It’s been a fair old while since we had the chance to write about the mighty Aston Villa. What has happened since our last piece? Erling Haaland scored 500 goals, Britain gained a new monarch and said goodbye to another, Liz Truss’ government got off to a great start by crashing the economy, and Vladimir Putin threatened the world with Armageddon more than once. Lovely. Speaking of the end of days, let’s check in at Steven Gerrard’s Villa.
Amazingly, since our last piece following the defeat at Arsenal, Villa haven’t actually lost a game. This is something we should all be celebrating, right? So, why does it feel like Villa are in terrible form? The Manchester City draw was impressive, and the performances of Ashley Young, Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa have been somewhat heartening. However, they are all defensive players and while the back four may have rediscovered some competency over the last month, not a single attacker has done anything of note whatsoever.
Villa have been a brutal watch. Pundits are constantly saying after every Villa game ‘that was a tough one for the neutrals’ or coming out with lines like this:
Villa v Southampton must be up there with the worst ever PL games.
— Jeff Stelling (@JeffStelling) September 16, 2022
Jeff Stelling wasn’t wrong about Villa v Southampton. The unconvincing 1-0 win over The Saints and the two subsequent draws against ten-man Leeds and bottom of the table Nottingham Forest were atrocious spectacles. It would be like some bloodthirsty ancient Roman citizens turning up to the Colosseum to watch gladiators fight to the death and then all the two guys did was sit around and chat about their favourite flavour of gruel, sending the crowd into a collective slumber.
At no point in any of Villa’s most recent games did the side look like scoring through any kind of coherent approach play. The team’s shape consistently led to stodgy and unproductive performances, with players often just getting in each other’s way or failing to find any creative inspiration.
Very little has changed in attack since we last wrote about our heroes back in early September. Often the full-backs get forward but fail to beat the opposition defender. They will then pass back to someone like John McGinn, who will subsequently send a hopeful lofted ball into the area to a lone striker that doesn’t win headers. It is a relentlessly turgid and uninspired watch, and the team fundamentally cannot attack. The players look like they have no idea how to break down even a ten-man team like Leeds (our 0-0 draw came just after they had conceded five goals at Brentford), though Ollie Watkins was wasteful at Elland Road.
As mentioned in our previous piece following the Arsenal game watching Gerrard’s Villa is like witnessing football as imagined by the writers of The Simpsons.
This dross comes with Villa having something like 4,000 coaches, including Aaron Danks as a specialist attacking coach. What are they all doing at Bodymoor Heath to rectify this? Why does it always look like we don’t know how to play football in the final third?
Ugggghhhh…anyway, how does that Simpson’s visit to the soccer game end again?
Whelp! Hopefully we aren’t all rioting in Birmingham city centre anytime soon. In fact, we’re more inclined to think we all fall asleep during a plodding 0-0 draw and wake up in the year 2030 wondering where we are and how the hell Britain just made one of The Cheeky Girls its 420th Chancellor in ten years.
None of Villa’s attackers are currently in form and that surely has to come down to the pattern of play and shape of the team. Coutinho worryingly has had zero goal involvements all season.
The very talented Emi Buendia often runs a lonely furrow in attack. He at least tries to make things happen, but his options for a final ball are few and far between. Like Coutinho, Buendia has been largely ineffective in recent games.
Danny Ings always looks lost during his brief appearances. The former Southampton man is struggling to build any kind of form and continues to look an awkward fit at Villa. It increasingly looks like the side would have to change their whole approach to accommodate Ings and play to his strengths.
Ollie Watkins is enduring a tough spell and is clearly low on confidence. Quite how Watkins is supposed to gain form when he must endure so many long balls aimed at his head is beyond comprehension. Heading and hold-up play are not Watkins’ strong suit, but we continue to play as if we have big Niall Quinn standing around ready to nod down lofted balls to a waiting Kevin Phillips.
To sum it up, here’s Birmingham Live’s Patrick Rowe providing some very concerning facts.
Aston Villa rank 19th in the Premier League for expected goals (7.3 xG) and 18th for shot creating actions per 90 mins (16.11)
It’s a tough watch… #avfc pic.twitter.com/pfmCfe9kUX
— PGR (@pgr_analytics) October 11, 2022
Let’s face if, folks, that is relegation form.
Villa’s poor performances under Gerrard has put some focus on Christian Purslow. We went in-depth on the Villa CEO on our most recent podcast episode.
Firstly, the positives. Aston Villa has been run by a collection of unbelievably poor owners and board members ever since Doug Ellis sold the club to Randy Lerner in 2006.
Dare we forget Dr Tony and his weird Tweets? Keith Wyness? The sheer dross of Lerner’s final years at the club where he even released a public statement basically saying he couldn’t be bothered anymore?
Purslow and the owners, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, have done a fantastic job in revitalising the club ever since they walked through the door (and thank the gods they did just when it looked like HMRC were ready to wind us up). Their investment in the youth system (including the inner-city academy) and the women’s team has been a real positive and long overdue. The appointment of Dean Smith worked wonders and got Villa back into the Premier League. The stadium plans are exciting and make it feel like the club is moving forward. The communication with fans over the badge redesign is also appreciated.
The board has also impressively signed some of Villa’s best players to long-term contracts, including Emi Martinez and now Douglas Luiz.
Aston Villa is delighted to announce that @DGOficial has signed a new long-term contract with the club! 💜
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) October 14, 2022
Villa are in a much better spot than we could have imagined during the Dr Tony era and that would not have happened without the current ownership. The future still looks positive under NSWE.
However, we are also reluctant to get too carried away. During Lerner’s first five years in charge Villa were going places, until he turned off the money taps after the club consistently failed to break into the top four. We would like to think the current ownership will remain committed to Villa, unlike Lerner.
Purslow, who is not popular on Merseyside following his spell on the Liverpool board over a decade ago, is closely linked to Steven Gerrard. It seems fairly obvious that their previous Liverpool connection helped bring Gerrard to Villa. If Gerrard was sacked in the near future it would look bad on Purslow.
Everyone makes mistakes and every club makes questionable managerial choices – David Moyes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer didn’t work at Manchester United, Niko Kovac struggled at Bayern Munich, Nuno Espirito Santo was a bad fit at Spurs, and Watford’s 50,000 recent managers have all lasted in the job for less time than a British Chancellor. In fairness, Gerrard had impressed at Rangers (although he had won just one trophy) and it was an understandable punt by the board to bring him to Villa. The former England captain’s stature in the game has surely helped secure some of Villa’s players on long-term deals and to sign the likes of Boubacar Kamara.
If Gerrard continues to struggle, though, Purslow will have to ensure he makes the right choice with his replacement, otherwise Sawiris and Edens will surely ask questions of him and Sporting Director Johan Lange.
Recruitment has also been questionable over the last year. A lot was made of how Lange would work closely with the manager to build a strong squad, but something has changed during Gerrard’s time in charge. What was the plan for the (pre-Gerrard) signing of Danny Ings? Was it wise to make him our highest-paid player at the time? We also have a worryingly out-of-sorts Coutinho on big money until 2026. And was Lucas Digne, signed for a large fee and big wages, really that much of an improvement on Matt Targett? These big contracts and transfer fees are a situation to watch in the coming years and a reason some reputable football journalists have compared us to the economically-stretched Everton.
GERRARD: STICK OR TWIST?
It is close to a year since Gerrard joined the club and Villa have regressed. There is no suggestion from recent games that the team are on the verge of turning their poor form around. The football is dire. The fans are disconnected. Something has to give soon.
Sacking Gerrard and his staff and finding his replacement would cost millions. Who would replace him? Would Mauricio Pochettino really come to Villa? Well, it’s worth an approach. Maybe the job would appeal to him (let’s hope so), but it would likely take a lot of convincing for the Argentine. If not Poch, would Brendan Rodgers be a decent shout, perhaps?
We would love to be proven wrong and find that Gerrard and his coaches finally manage to make this talented squad click. He will have to do it soon, with games against Chelsea, Fulham and Brentford coming in quick succession. Villa have the players to win some of these games, but to gain three points you actually have to create chances.
According to this My Old Man Said piece, Purslow has not reconsidered Gerrard’s position, so don’t expect a sacking anytime soon.
However, Gerrard is now in a crucial phase where one particularly bad result might indicate a point of no return. Think of when Hull City beat Villa 2-0 back in 2015 and we all knew that was the end for Paul Lambert. Gerrard has to get Villa firing and quickly.
Follow the author on Twitter @FrankieMaguire