Now is no time for nostalgia. On Sunday, Steven Gerrard hosts one of the managers under whom he played at Liverpool, as Brendan Rodgers takes Leicester to Villa Park. Next Saturday he will return to Anfield as an opposing manager. But the point of moving into management after playing is to avoid being defined by the past and Gerrard’s focus will be on showing who he is as a manager and what his Aston Villa team could become.
Which is not to say history should be denied. Gerrard’s experiences inevitably influence his approach. It was interesting on Friday to hear him acknowledge learning from Rodgers. “I tried to take a lot of things away from Brendan,” said Gerrard. “He was a really good man-manager with the way he spoke to players and dealt with them. That was really impressive.
“More importantly, on the training pitch his delivery was really slick. There was good organisation about his sessions and the way he used to set his team up. I was really impressed with his player-to-coach relationship.”
Gerrard also spoke about how his year in charge of Liverpool’s under-18s gave him the confidence to pursue a managerial career at senior level, as well as the time to build the support staff he took to Rangers and Villa. That includes not just his assistants, Garry McAllister and Michael Beale, but also Tom Culshaw (technical coach), Scott Mason (lead analyst) and Jordan Milsom (head of fitness and conditioning).
“I decided to go in as a coach at Liverpool’s academy as I knew I would need pitch confidence,” Gerrard said. “I needed to put the hours in in terms of leading a team, setting sessions up, finding a way of playing, a philosophy and identify that I wanted. To do that away from the cameras where I could make mistakes and grow.
“That was the key and important time for me to get to the position I am in now. I also needed time to find staff members I wanted to come on the journey with me.”
They have made a good start at Villa, winning their first two matches and giving Manchester City a scare on Wednesday before succumbing to a 2-1 defeat. There are signs the upturn is down to Gerrard’s methods rather than just a novelty boost.
The most obvious improvement may be the hardest to sustain. Before Gerrard’s arrival most observers would have said the two areas of the team he should aim to upgrade in January were central midfield and left-back (even though Matt Targett was very good last season before struggling this term) but the performances of Targett and Marvelous Nakamba in three matches under Gerrard have suggested that might not be so urgent.
Targett has been so good he could be badly missed if injury forces him to sit out the Leicester match and Nakamba has been on a mission to ridicule the notion Villa are soft in the middle, emerging as a surprisingly dominant enforcer while winning twice as many tackles per match on average (4.6 v 2.3) than he did before Gerrard’s arrival.
That has been mirrored throughout the team, with Villa winning an average of 21.7 tackles per match under Gerrard compared with 14.1 this season under Dean Smith. Gerrard’s shape seems to have made it easier for Villa to sustain their intensity. He has tightened up a side that had become loose.
Villa have had less of the ball than they did earlier in the season, but have had more control, marshalling their opponents when not in possession and launching dangerous counters as soon as they win it back.
Most excitingly, there is evidence that Gerrard has figured out how to get the best out of Emi Buendía, who has mostly disappointed since joining from Norwich for a record fee in the summer as part of the post-Jack Grealish remodelling of Villa’s attack. The Argentinian delivered his best performance for Villa on Wednesday.
The muscle injury Leon Bailey suffered in that match is a blow, but the template is still applicable, with Buendía and another attacker deployed as playmakers behind and either side of a central striker rather than as wide men.
“It’s not a case of being over-narrow, it’s a case of getting our talent close to the goal and more involved in the game,” says Gerrard. “We want the personnel moving forward to be adaptable, so sometimes the width will come from the full-backs and sometimes it will come from the No 7 or 11. What our system does is give us the chance to be adaptive to what we need to do to hurt teams.
“I’ve certainly got the personnel to do that here. We played with two No 10s in the previous three games and that gives Emi the chance to play in his favourite position and be involved in the game, closer to the goal and in areas of the pitch where he can be creative.
“He’s certainly producing in terms of what area of the pitch we want him in and being that creative force for us. It’s really exciting to have him. Us as a staff and our identity and philosophy will suit good attacking players.”