The second new manager of November’s international break was announced today, as Steven Gerrard has officially replaced Dean Smith as manager of Aston Villa. He arrives from a successful spell in Scotland with Rangers, where Celtic were denied a tenth successive league title.
Now let’s mention the L-word straight away – Liverpool. Apologies to Villa fans. However, it’s hard to avoid for a man so strongly associated with the team he loves and played 710 times for.
He is synonymous with the Merseyside club, whom he captained to several trophies including the now-legendary 2004-05 Champions League. So it will be strange to see him at another Premier League club; even stranger on December 11th when Villa take the trip to Anfield.
His new side are dropping down the league as a consequence of five successive defeats, having failed to kick-on with the £100m Jack Grealish money. No team has conceded more goals during these five, also allowing 78 shots to be made.
They will be hoping that Gerrard can replicate the outstanding defence he formed at Rangers and that it wasn’t just because of the gap that exists between the Glasgow giants and the rest. Unbeaten throughout 38 games, Rangers only conceded 13 goals from a wonderfully-low 85 shots on target.
The remnants are already there for a strong Villa defence, with last season’s heroics of Emiliano Martinez, Matt Targett, Tyrone Mings etc still fresh in the mind. They registered 15 clean sheets and were the league’s seventh-best back line. Once Gerrard has had time to enforce his methods, together they can produce more FPL glory for managers.
Matty Cash has been one of the few bright sparks in their season so far. Since Smith switched to a wing-back system in Gameweek 5, only Antonio Rudiger and Joao Cancelo have had more shots from defence than the new Poland international’s ten. He also ranks second for penalty box touches.
Gerrard’s Rangers took a regular 4-3-3 formation and moved the inside-forwards a little bit more inside, giving closer support to the lone striker whilst also forcing opponents inwards so that there was space out wide for the flying full-backs. With this, right-back James Tavernier scored 42 times and assisted 62 from 168 matches under Gerrard – albeit skewed by taking penalties – while left-back Borna Barisic scored seven and set up 33 from 124.
If this reminds you of Liverpool pair Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, it should – oh, there’s the L-word again. He spent time working under Jurgen Klopp as under-19s manager, embracing his philosophy of attacking full-backs, high pressing and fast-paced football. Rangers liked to keep possession and build overloads out wide – benefitting their attacks but also enforcing a swift shut down if the ball is lost out there.
At Villa, it’s easy to imagine Cash and Targett bombing forward, with Emiliano Buendia and Ollie Watkins as floating attacking midfielders just off Danny Ings. Or perhaps Leon Bailey replaces one.
Watkins has two goals and one assist from these five defeats, following a slow start to the season where Smith was unsure which system to go with. Priced at £7.3m, he could be a good option when facing Brighton (H), Crystal Palace (a), Man City (H) and Leicester (a), although their fixture list has frustratingly spaced out tough opponents quite evenly over the next two months.
Summer signing Bailey was fantastic in his Gameweek 5 cameo against Everton before going down with another injury, making way for John McGinn to be their top-scoring midfielder in FPL with 33 points.
Fellow newcomer Ings is currently injured, with Buendia another who has had a stop-start introduction to Villa Park, scoring in the third match but not starting another until Gameweek 8.
Aston Villa CEO Christian Purslow knows he is taking a risk by appointing a big name with little managerial experience but he would call it a calculated risk, knowing the aura that an iconic player like Gerrard will bring to the Midlands alongside his impressive Scottish title win. For FPL managers wanting to predict the next trend, maybe it’s almost time for Cash, Buendia or Watkins to excel.