There isn’t anyone involved in Steven Gerrard taking over as manager for Aston Villa that doesn’t know the deal here. The ending that Gerrard wants is that this is the route to land him as manager of Liverpool one day, the club that he — mostly single-handedly — kept relevant for his playing career (and tragically cost their greatest day once). Aston Villa and their fans know it too, but that’s the world these days. Unless you’re a handful of clubs around Europe, you know that if things go well, your players and manager will always be targets for those clubs.
That said, the feeling of Gerrard automatically heading for Anfield when Jürgen Klopp steps away, which the German has flatly said will be at the end of the 2023-2024 season when his contract is up, is more fanciful than reality. Because that only gives Gerrard and Villa two and a half seasons together. What are the requirements that both would have to meet to make Liverpool feel he was ready for the bigger job? Qualifying for Europe? Qualifying for the Champions League? A cup win? A couple? There are no clear answers, and it’s not a ton of time.
These are questions for the future though, because Gerrard has landed at Villa today, and Villa have their issues currently. Which is actually a good thing for Stevie G. Villa are clearly an underachieving team at the moment, having lost their talisman Jack Grealish in the summer and losing five matches in a row at the moment. There is a waywardness about the team right now, as they try and figure out what they are without Grealish. In the past two seasons, the answers were simple. Give the ball to Jack, something will happen. You can kind of sense Villa still looking for that outlet during this season, and then remembering it’s not an option.
Is Gerrard the man to bring them up the table? You’ll find opinions on all sides of that debate from his time at Glasgow Rangers. Scotland gets derided from all sides as a backwater league, with only two teams, and Gerrard managed to finish above the other team, Celtic, just once. It’s a little more complicated than that, as Rangers had to return from the lower divisions, thanks to going bankrupt, only two seasons before. They weren’t RANGERS quite yet. And Rangers didn’t just win the Scottish title last year, they destroyed the rest of the league — going unbeaten, with a goal-difference of +79, and conceding just 13 goals all season. They only conceded 19 in the season before that.
On the flip side, it’s always hard to know how to weigh anything from last season during the pandemic. Secondly, while Gerrard was able to get Rangers into the knockout stages of the Europa League, they fell at the Round of 16 hurdle both times. They’re hardly nailed on to get out of the group this season. And in his one shot at the Champions League qualifiers, Rangers basically got popped by Malmo of Sweden (though there’s something of a small excuse there, as Malmo were already over a month into their season, and Rangers had just started theirs. But again...Malmo). Maybe Europa League’s Round of 16 is the ceiling to which Rangers can accomplish. Your mileage may vary.
Villa fans will be hoping that the year Gerrard spent coaching Liverpool’s youth team under Klopp means that they’ll just be getting Scouse Klopp to HEAVY METAL FOOTBALL their way up the table. And certainly Klopp thinks highly of Gerrard. That’s not exactly what Villa will be getting, or at least not automatically. In Glasgow, Gerrard showed tactical flexibility. He arrived wanting to run the same 4-3-3 that Liverpool run, with the inverted wingers on the front line and an all-action midfield behind it. But given the personnel, Gerrard eventually evolved into what kind of looked like the old AC Milan, Christmas tree 4-3-2-1, playing two No. 10s behind his central striker.
What Villa fans will recognize from Klopp tendencies is fullbacks terrorizing the opposition up and down the flanks both in attack and defense. Due to the narrowness everywhere else that Gerrard employs, Matty Cash and Matt Targett are definitely going to get a workout. Also harkening back to current Liverpool is Gerrard’s Rangers teams did press violently, with the front three narrow and ready to spring a counterattack at a lightning pace.
It’s hard to know what Gerrard will apply to Villa. They don’t have the two No. 10s that Rangers did, and that sort of formation would have a harder time working in England than in Scotland where Rangers had the ball almost all of the time. Villa won’t. We know the first charge Gerrard will have is shoring up the defense, as Villa have already shipped 20 goals, third worst in the Premier League. But that won’t mean settling into a low-block and trying to just bore everyone to death. Gerrard will almost certainly have Villa defending from the front and up the field. Villa are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to pressure in the attacking third. This might be the first change. But again, Gerrard comes from a club and league where his team always had the ball and were pressing teams less skilled and controlled than they were. It’ll mostly be the opposite at Villa Park, at least in terms of having the ball. We won’t know how Gerrard deals with that until we see it.
And there’s certainly more than enough to work with for Gerrard to get Villa up the table where they belong. There’s two proven Premier League strikers in Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings. There’s an England defender in Tyrone Mings, who simply needs to find his form again to solve most of Villa’s defensive woes. There’s an enterprising midfield, if not the most dynamic. Villa also have more cash to spend in the transfer market than you might think, and that’s without the boost of the $137 million they got for Grealish. There’s also one of the country’s best youth systems in place.
If Gerrard does land the Liverpool manager job come 2024, Villa fans will be safe in the knowledge that things went very well indeed.