The decision to sack Dean Smith was seen as a harsh one by many onlookers, but to understand the thinking of Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow it’s important to realise he is coming at this from a different perspective to pretty much everyone in the sport.
Aston Villa truly believe they are on the path to becoming an elite team. The owners, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, have a five-year plan to make the club competitive in the Champions League, and as far-fetched as that might sound the amount of money they have pumped into the club since their 2018 acquisition shows they are serious.
From that perspective, it becomes easier to see why they felt Smith’s record of 39 points from 35 games this calendar year wasn’t good enough. They expect a ruthless and sharp upward trajectory.
It is an attitude that also sheds some light on why they appointed Steven Gerrard. This is not an appointment built on celebrity, or on the hope he will steady the ship. Villa think they have the next big thing – and the manager to take them into Europe.
Gerrard remains an unknown entity
How much can we really learn from the Scottish Premiership? That is the only question that really matters as we anticipate the start of the Gerrard era at Aston Villa. His record at Rangers is unquestionably good, having ended Celtic’s nine-year monopoly with an unbeaten title-winning season in 2020/21, but it is possible that this will have little bearing on his time in Birmingham.
Scottish football only has two clubs financially capable of challenging, and in the modern game the difference between managing in a duopoly and working at mid-table level are almost beyond comparison, from tactical to psychological factors. Gerrard will have to adapt his approach; will have to learn on the job.
But while winning the SPL title would not alone qualify Gerrard to manage at Premier League level, the manner of their triumph is cause for optimism. An invincible season is an extraordinary achievement at any level that says something about the team ethic, determination, focus, and motivation.
It reflects very well on the man-management and non-tactical aspects of Gerrard the manager, which should hardly come as a surprise given his unparalled leadership skills as a player.
This is important when it comes to Villa because the quality of the squad means they are currently under-achieving. Improving the non-tactical side of things should be enough to lift the club to their mean by the end of the current season; a mid-table position that gives them a platform for further building over the summer. Given the favourable odds, it is worth backing Villa to sneak into the top ten at 4.57/2.
Villa’s squad suits his tactics
Tactically, Gerrard’s Rangers tended to play in a narrow 4-3-3 (with the wingers so narrow as to become number tends) with flying full-backs overlapping. This basic setup, which includes high pressing and high possession numbers, makes Gerrard roughly similar to Jurgen Klopp in terms of broad tactical philosophy.
But Rangers were always going to dominate the ball in the SPL, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts these methods at Villa Park. Most likely, as an adaptable tactician who introduced a deeper block during successful Europa League campaigns at Rangers, Gerrard will look to achieve something similar to Patrick Vieira at Crystal Palace: a midblock with aggressive midfielders pressing in the central third of the pitch.
Villa’s squad does appear well-suited to Gerrard’s approach, which is a testament to the joined-up thinking among the club hierarchy. Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings are both excellent pressing forwards, while John McGinn and Jacob Ramsey are energetic midfielders whom Gerrard will appreciate.
Ezri Konsa and Axel Tanzuebe are solid ball-playing defenders that will fit with a possession-centric system, and the full-backs Matt Targett and Matty Cash are better attacking than defending. These two will hope to emulate the incredible numbers of the two Rangers full-backs James Tavenier and Borna Barisic, who amassed 28 goal contributions between them in the SPL last season.
Emiliano Buendia and Leon Bailey, once over their injury issues, would slot in nicely as those dual number tens behind the striker. The spine of a good team is already in place, then, and while Villa clearly need a new central midfielder they should be able to sign Rangers’ star player Glen Kamara, who sits at the base of midfield.
What would success look like?
There is good reason to assume Gerrard will do enough to put Villa back into the middle of the table, but it is harder to know if that would be deemed good enough for either party. Gerrard may need to do something unexpected, like a top-seven finish by the end of 2022/23, to really improve his reputation enough to be shortlisted for the Liverpool job, while the Villa board are unlikely to settle for anything less.
That’s the curious difficulty of Aston Villa’s position. They may have hit a ceiling. There is very little room at the top and, no matter how much money they spend, it is hard to see how the club can finish higher than the ‘Big Six’ or the likes of West Ham and Leicester City.
Villa are on the verge of getting stuck in limbo, with owners and a manager who share an ambition to achieve so much more. Gerrard and Villa is an exciting match – in theory. But in reality there isn’t an obvious upward trajectory.