Steven Gerrard – Aston Villa – Tactical Analysis

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Despite losing five on the spin, the sacking of Dean Smith from Aston Villa came as a bit of a surprise. The club were in relatively good standing in the table, after a formidable 2020-21 campaign in which they hovered in and around a Europa League spot throughout the season, only to lose Jack Grealish halfway through and stumble down to 11th. The powers at be had to get the decision right when it came to Smith’s replacement, and they appear to have done exactly that in the acquisition of Steven Gerrard. Gerrard remains a relatively inexperienced manager, but with a clear sense of tactical knowhow, the former Liverpool legend appears to be long for this world. Gerrard’s won four from his first ten in charge, and added his first draw to the mix this past weekend against Manchester United with an extraordinary comeback. New additions in Lucas Digne and Philippe Coutinho have also entered the frame, providing the perfect time to take a look at how Gerrard has settled into life at Villa Park so far. Here is our tactical analysis of Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa in 2021-22.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-2-1

Steven Gerrard’s formational fluidity has been one of the defining characteristics of his Villa team so far. While they’ve always held the same relative 4-3-3 shape, it’s fantastically floated into a 4-3-1-2, and more commonly a Christmas tree-esque 4-3-2-1. In doing this, Ollie Watkins has started just about every game as a wide forward, with Emi Buendia supporting on the other side and Danny Ings usually the focal point up top. Movement between the front three is extremely fluid, with Buendia often central, and Ings often wide. Late on in games, Ings will frequently come off the field, with Watkins becoming the main target instead. It’s in these moments where Villa actually look more effective, as for whatever reason the Ings-Watkins pairing hasn’t fully lifted off, and Watkins operates more efficiently in central spaces.

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At the back end of his 4-3-2-1, Steven Gerrard has kept consistency from Dean Smith’s days in charge, with Emi Martinez continuing as the man in between the posts behind the back-four. Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa form a solid centre-back partnership ahead of him, with the reliable Matt Targett only now losing his place at left-back to former Barcelona man Lucas Digne, who’s made an expensive move from Everton. Speaking of money, Matty Cash has continued to grow in the Villa team after a fantastic first season, fulfilling an important attacking role in Villa’s set-up down the right. Douglas Luiz anchors the midfield three in front of the back-four, with support from the energetic Jacob Ramsey, and one of either John McGinn or Morgan Sanson. We may also see Philippe Coutinho enter the frame as a midfielder in future weeks, but for now, it’s safe to assume he’ll be playing in the front three when possible.

The question would then become about who he’d replace, and we think that man should be the striker in Danny Ings – given his low productivity in front of goal since arriving from Southampton in the summer. Ollie Watkins is too essential to leave out and often the first point of contact in attacking transitions, while Emi Buendia is often their only hope in linking the midfield and attacking lines together. If nothing else, the signing of Philippe Coutinho provides more options for Gerrard to use as he gets into his groove at Villa, and a useful option to change matches from the bench. But after his debut against United, the Brazilian will be impossibly difficult to leave out of the eleven in the coming weeks.

BUILD-UP

Aston Villa build out from the back in a 2+3 shape, with the three being the central midfielders rather than the fullbacks. Tyrone Mings, Douglas Luiz and Ezri Konsa will be responsible for initial circulations, as Jacob Ramsey and John McGinn start higher, but the two midfield men will usually end up drifting to the side of the back-two to create an additional angle of support. This allows the fullbacks to situate themselves higher up the field and push the opposition back, where the central midfielders have more room to get on the ball and then explode forward. Jacob Ramsey in particular is someone who loves to have the ball at his feet and run, and so he benefits from taking control deeper on the field. Then once the ball is shifted wide to the fullbacks, it’s usually only a one or two touch before the ball is thrusted toward Villa’s attackers.

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Emi Buendia can also play his part in the build-up in various moments, dropping into central channels to create a diamond quartet in midfield. Watkins will then drift inside to meet Danny Ings and form a front two, as Cash and Targett/Digne hold the width. In different moments, Douglas Luiz and Tyrone Mings will also use their long passing range to switch play and find long diagonals toward the wing-backs. In those situations, it becomes more imperative for Buendia to drift toward the wide areas and help, as he can attract attention away from the running power of Watkins and Ings in behind.

ATTACKING PRINCIPLES

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Still finding their groove under new tactics and a new manager, Steven Gerrard’s team haven’t always been brilliant in possession of the ball. They’ve implemented interesting tactics that make a whole lot of sense, but often still fail to find connectivity between the midfield and forward lines. Part of that is due to not having much of the ball in their matches under the Liverpool legend, and not having much time in matches to really develop rhythm and consistency. They’ve only had more of the possession in two of Gerrard’s ten fixtures so far – their disappointing 2-1 loss to Brentford, and the latest 2-2 draw against United this weekend. In each of their other matches, it’s been much more about their work off the ball, where they then attempt to break quickly and play on the counter. Ollie Watkins is well suited to counter attacking football and often the man they look to bring into the game immediately after winning the ball. In fact, Watkins has been the target of Villa passes almost 200 more times than the next highest – Matt Targett.

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The Villains can go direct into his path and allow him to hold it up, or will more frequently give him something to chase, hoping he reaches it before the opposition’s goalkeeper comes out in a flash to clear it away. Emi Buendia also shows bright moments in attacking transitions to get on the ball in central channels in that 1-2 shape, where he can then thread the needle onto one of the other two. The former Norwich man is also great in tight spaces and capable of drawing fouls for his team, which allows Villa additional escape routes after winning possession. As if that’s not already wonderful, McGinn and Ramsey are both confident dribblers who can break quickly up the pitch and allow the forward line to stretch the opposition back as they seek space.

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In longer spells with the ball, Villa attempt to use their width provided by Targett and Cash, looking to deliver balls into the box and create wide overloads. The outside central midfielders will quickly join, alongside Buendia drifting toward the ball. Matt Targett’s been a real fixture in getting up and down the left wing, often combining with Jacob Ramsey and Ollie Watkins on that side to help Villa progress into the final third. Cash on the other side is perhaps the more talented attacker, but Villa actually have the lowest percentage of right-sided attacks in the league this season. Comparatively, they have one of the highest percentages of attacks through the middle, elucidating their counter-attacking verticality.

In the final creation phase, Villa form into something of a 2-3-5, with Ramsey driving forward and looking for moments to compound matters all the more. Douglas Luiz’s positional sense becomes extraordinarily crucial in defensive transitions, as Villa stretch the field until it pops. It might come as little surprise for you to hear that Gerrard’s men can be exposed here in transition, due to the massive spaces around the field. Tyrone Mings is a quality 1v1 defender, but even he wants to get forward when the Villains chase matches. Additionally, the high positioning of the fullbacks makes the job of Villa’s holders all the more troubling, and space can be sought out wide if the opposition are able to break quickly enough. We must remind ourselves that Villa are primarily a counter-attacking team right now that don’t find themselves in this stage of play all that often. But it’s safe to say that Villa and Gerrard haven’t fully worked all of this out yet.

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In inspiring a greater degree of connectivity between the lines and adding more quality to that final pass – enter Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian constantly wants the ball at his feet, but can also take up dangerous positions off the ball and seek out space to get on the end of moves. He already seems to have formed a great understanding with Jacob Ramsey, and if Villa can have both Buendia and Coutinho pulling the strings in behind Watkins, suddenly you have a dangerously balanced attack.

DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES

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Out of possession, Aston Villa typically defend in a 4-3-2-1 formation. The shape will hold true throughout the phases, with the full-on 4-3-3 only taking place on goal kicks or longer spells in their low-block. Buendia often ends up as the player in the middle during defensive phases, which potentially allows Ings and Watkins greater ability to quickly drift wide in attacking transitions.

Further down the pitch in their mid to low block, the central midfielders again have an important role. They will be the ones to track opposition wing-backs or fullbacks, with Villa’s own fullbacks only getting involved lower on the field. That again means space can be found out wide, as there is only so much shuffling and sprinting the outside central midfielders can do without exposing central channels. McGinn/Sanson and Ramsey will then usually wait to press wide for when the ball is on its way toward an opposition fullback/wing-back and look to limit the player’s progress from there. Lower down the field, Gerrard’s team can also be good about double-teaming dangerous players. They successfully marked Mason Mount out of the game against Chelsea, using a combination of Matt Targett and Tyrone Mings to track his movement, and Jacob Ramsey to screen passes into his path. They had less success once Romelu Lukaku entered the frame and targeted Mings specifically, but for long periods looked fully comfortable dealing with Hudson-Odoi and Mount in their collective efforts.

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Part of that process in defending resolutely comes from a narrowness between the back-four and midfield-three, again usually only pressing in the wide areas when the ball makes its way there. The front line will hold much less compactness, and their job becomes about readying themselves to break quickly upon regains of possession. In theory, it’s a great strategy that should aid in Villa’s swift attacks. But in practice, it ends up putting a significant amount of stress on the midfielders and fullbacks, who have to shuffle with a tireless energy that simply cannot be sustained across the full 90 minutes. Jacob Ramsey seems to pull it off, but it’s not uncommon for Villa to drop their intensity at the start of the second half.

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Helping in that cause, Villa don’t tend to counter-press after winning the ball, instead recovering position. They also don’t press vigorously in their 4-3-2-1, which saves energy, but also again puts more stress on the men in behind the front three. Steven Gerrard’s men have conceded 13 goals since he took charge, keeping just 2 clean sheets in 10 matches. It’s not the worst defensive record, but suggests more work is evidently still needed to get the Villains to where they want to be – in the top half of the table.

CONCLUSION

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Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa have had a bumpy ride so far, but the signs of a capable manager and a capable squad are all in place. Now with the signing of a maverick in Philippe Coutinho to take control of matches, Villa are well set up to rise up the table and stake their claim for a place in the top half. They had their work cut out for them in finding the best ways toward greater connectivity between midfield and forward lines, but the signing of the Brazilian may have solved that issue in the blink of an eye. For now, Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa have been an intriguing watch, and have implemented several interesting ideas in their Christmas tree 4-3-2-1.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa after ten games in charge. Be sure to check out more from our Premier League analysis section, including our latest look at Eddie Howe’s Newcastle. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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