Steven Gerrard’s appointment as Aston Villa head coach was confirmed on Thursday, following the departure of Dean Smith after five straight Premier League defeats.
The former Rangers manager’s first match at Villa is set to be against Brighton and Hove Albion in Gameweek 12, with the fixtures to follow a bit of a mixed bag right up until the New Year:
The Midlands side currently sit 16th in the table, two points above the relegation zone, but can Gerrard make their assets more appealing, and what does his appointment mean for Fantasy Premier League (FPL) managers?
In this, our latest Scout Report, we’ll take a closer look.
Steven Gerrard’s last Premier League appearance as a player arrived in 2015, when he played his final match for Liverpool.
During his 18-year playing career, which also included a short spell at MLS side Los Angeles Galaxy, Gerrard won the UEFA Champions League, two FA Cups and three EFL Cups at Liverpool, as well as earning 114 caps for England.
After retiring, Gerrard then took his first steps in coaching during the Jurgen Klopp era, by taking charge of a Liverpool under-18 side which included Curtis Jones (£5.0m) and Neco Williams (£3.9m), before then moving into senior management at Rangers. He guided the Glasgow side to two second-place finishes before delivering their first Scottish Premier League title in a decade last season, toppling Celtic in the process, and also going the entire league campaign unbeaten.
Now, Gerrard departs Rangers for a new challenge in the Premier League, leaving them four points clear at the top of the table.
RANGERS UNDER GERRARD
When analysing Gerrard’s time at Rangers, what immediately stands out is their defensive record. In the two seasons prior to his arrival, Rangers had finished third, conceding 44 and 50 goals respectively, but Gerrard tightened them up immediately, conceding 27 in his first season, followed by 19 the one after.
However, the 2020/21 title-winning campaign is when their numbers really caught the eye, as they kept a record 26 clean sheets and conceded just 13 goals in 38 games.
It’s also worth noting that some of their best defensive performances arrived in Europe, as they shut out the likes of Villarreal, Feyenoord and Braga during his time at the club.
RANGERS’ CLEAN SHEET RECORD IN ALL COMPETITIONS UNDER GERRARD:
|Season||Games played||Clean sheets|
A NARROW 4-3-3
“In terms of tactics, I always try to go for Benitez as the base, especially away in Europe. The block, compact, no lines, slide at the speed of the ball. I’ve tried to keep all of that, but I also want a little bit more [in attack].” – Steven Gerrard
Gerrard, who played under Rafa Benitez and worked under Jurgen Klopp as a youth coach at Liverpool, has taken elements from both during his time at Rangers.
Tactically, they sometimes played a 4-2-3-1 formation, but most of their successful football arrived in a narrow 4-3-3, with an attacking, possession-based approach.
However, it’s probably worth noting that a team like Rangers were always going to be a possession-based side in the Scottish Premiership, given that they are vastly superior to most of their opponents, so we should probably expect to see a more balanced approach while at Villa.
Notably, the full-backs in Gerrard’s Rangers system essentially played as wide midfielders, pushing forward relentlessly and creating a 2-3-5 shape in possession.
James Tavernier was particularly effective in this role from the right, regularly advancing high up the pitch and attacking the penalty box. In fact, during the 2020/21 campaign, he recorded 12 goals (including seven penalties, admittedly) and nine assists, while Borna Barisic on the opposite flank produced a goal and six assists. Both players ranked first and second in the division for crosses, too.
James Tavernier (left) and Borna Barisic’s (right) 2020/21 season heatmaps, via Sofa Score
In Gerrard’s 4-3-3, he likes his wingers to play narrow, similar to what we might see with Sadio Mane (£11.9m) and Mohamed Salah (£13.0m) at Liverpool.
Ryan Kent and Ianis Hagi were particularly effective in these roles in 2020/21, ending the campaign with 13 and eight goals respectively, while this season, Kemar Roofe’s performances have impressed.
Ryan Kent (left) and Ianis Hagi’s (right) 2020/21 season heatmaps, via Sofa Score
“In my conversations with Nassef (Sawiris), Wes (Edens) and the rest of the Board, it was apparent how ambitious their plans are for the club and I am looking forward to helping them achieve their aims.” – Steven Gerrard in an interview with the club’s official website upon his appointment
Firstly, Dean Smith’s sacking on Sunday wasn’t simply down to five successive defeats, as Villa have in fact lost 18 games in the Premier League this calendar year, more than any other side in the division barring Southampton. During that time, they have conceded 52 goals in 35 games, which suggests that fixing the defence will be a priority for Gerrard.
However, until we see proof of that, investing in any of their defensive assets feels like an unnecessary risk, especially given the immediate schedule, but on a more positive note, this is a defence that produced 15 clean sheets last season. That total was only bettered by Manchester City and Chelsea, so there is potential, and it does feel like Gerrard has a solid core of players he can turn to at the back, including Emiliano Martinez (£5.5m), Ezri Konsa (£4.9m) and England regular Tyrone Mings (£4.9m). The latter two may also benefit from set-pieces, as Rangers were consistently dangerous from dead-ball situations under Gerrard.
Given the attacking instincts of Gerrard’s full-backs at Rangers, Matty Cash (£5.1m) – who has performed well this season and leads all defenders for penalty box touches – is surely the defender with the most potential, having impressed in a more advanced role all season, while Matt Targett (£4.7m) offers a cheaper alternative on the opposite flank.
Top 10 defenders for penalty box touches 2021/22, including Aston Villa’s Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings
Tactically, we probably shouldn’t expect to see a dramatic shift away from Dean Smith’s 4-3-3 shape, which could mean further starts for academy product Jacob Ramsey (£4.5m) alongside Douglas Luiz (£4.5m) and John McGinn (£5.8m).
Further forward, if Gerrard’s time at Rangers is anything to go by, the inside forwards could be key. Emiliano Buendia (£6.2m), who naturally drifts into more central areas from the right, seems perfect for one of these roles, as does Leon Bailey (£6.4m).
However, it’s Ollie Watkins (£7.3m) and Danny Ings (£7.7m) who are perhaps more exciting, especially given the lack of in-form forwards currently available in FPL. The former in particular feels like the perfect Gerrard-type player, either leading the line or as the left-sided narrow winger, with his ability to press from the front talked up by Jurgen Klopp himself last season.
Encouragingly, Steven Gerrard – with the help of his assistants Michael Beale and Gary McAllister – made gradual improvements year on year during his time at Rangers.
Whether or not that success can translate to the Premier League remains to be seen, but his team’s performances in Europe, which saw them go undefeated home and away against Benfica, Feyenoord, Braga, Porto, Midtjylland and Villarreal, does offer hope that he can be a success against tougher opposition.
At Villa, Gerrard is inheriting a solid core of players, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the likes of Matty Cash, Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings become Fantasy options once the manager has settled in.
However, with so many unanswered questions, the fixture list has perhaps done FPL managers a favour, as it gives us time to assess their set-up and prospects before their schedule takes a turn for the good between Gameweeks 17 and 21, when they sit fifth on our Season Ticker for ease of fixture.
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