Steven Gerrard is the new head coach of Aston Villa after leaving Rangers to return to the Premier League, the former England captain named as Dean Smith’s successor after signing a three-and-a-half year deal at Villa Park.
Gerrard’s appointment at Rangers had been somewhat of a gamble given his lack of senior experience, but over three seasons saw his side evolve into Scotland’s finest, culminating in a historic unbeaten campaign last term to end Celtic’s nine-year dominance of the division.
The 41-year-old now faces a different task following his return to English football, handed the reigns at an Aston Villa side with long-term ambitions to gatecrash the Premier League’s established elite.
Currently just two points clear of the relegation places after a run of five consecutive league defeats, however, there is plenty of work to do before Villa can begin to challenge those further up the table.
Following Gerrard’s appointment, we look at five things that should be on his immediate to-do list.
Find a settled formation
The latter fixtures of Dean Smith’s reign proved a nightmare for Aston Villa, losing five consecutive Premier League fixtures and haemorrhaging goals at an alarming rate.
To combat his side’s defensive woes, the recently-sacked head coach chopped and changed formation, as a combination of absent personnel, poor performances, and desperation to solve his side’s problems led to a lack of continuity.
The best sides often have a set manner of playing and stick to their principles, with the current lack of identity at Manchester United having increased the pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position.
Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola are amongst those to have kept faith in their ideologies despite difficult periods and Gerrard should find his principles and stick to them, reworking his squad around his tactical plan.
Decide on his centre-back pairing
Villa rank third in the Premier League for goals conceded so far this season, with only Norwich and Newcastle having shipped more than the club’s 20 goals from their 11 fixtures.
Dean Smith attempted shore up his rearguard with system changes and the altering of personnel, including dropping club captain Tyrone Mings for the 4-1 home defeat to West Ham last month.
Mings’ replacement, Kortney Hause, is out of contract at the end of the season and possesses limited Premier League experience, whilst summer signing Axel Tuanzebe has failed to find his form since arriving on loan from Manchester United.
Villa’s haul of 15 clean sheets last season trailed only Manchester City and Chelsea across the entire division and a return to that solidity will be essential to improving results.
Gerrard’s side was built from the back at Rangers, with the club having conceded 50 goals in the season before his arrival, a figure that dropped to 27 the following season as signings such as Conor Goldson, Allan McGregor, and Borna Barisic tightened the rearguard.
Last season Rangers conceded just 13 goals and kept a Scottish Premiership record of 26 clean sheets, a pragmatism that could prove crucial to his early tenure at Villa Park.
Strengthen in midfield
Midfield has been a major issue for Villa in recent weeks, their lack of strength in a key area having contributed to their defensive issues.
Douglas Luiz’s recent absences have left a void in the club’s engine room, one which Marvelous Nakamba has failed to fill in defeats to West Ham and Southampton.
Nakamba has made just three starts this season, all of which have ended in defeat, and the lack of quality depth in the Villa squad is an issue that Gerrard will need to address as swiftly as possible.
Harry Winks – who has been frozen out at Tottenham and was a reported transfer target last summer – could emerge as a target, whilst Villa could also renew their interest in versatile Norwich star Todd Cantwell.
Having seen Villa outworked and outplayed in midfield across the opening months of the season, new signings should be high on the agenda for Gerrard and his recruitment team.
Get summer signings firing
Jack Grealish’s exit was always set to be a major blow for Villa, but one the club anticipated as interest from further up the Premier League materialised.
The £100m record-breaking fee for the former club captain provided huge funds to strengthen, spent primarily on the additions of Emiliano Buendia, Leon Bailey and Danny Ings – a trio of talent deemed shrewd business in pre-season.
Smith was unable to utilise the best of the summer additions with Buendia, Bailey and Ings featuring for just 35 minutes in tandem as a result of injury and Covid quarantine issues.
Each have shown just flashes of their ability during the season’s opening weeks and extracting the most from that trio will be crucial to Villa’s hopes of climbing away from the bottom three.
Focus on youth
Villa have an ownership that has repeatedly shown its willingness to invest in the pursuit of success, but the importance of the club’s academy system should not be overlooked with a number of precocious youngsters currently amongst their ranks.
Winners of the FA Youth Cup last season after beating Liverpool in the final, the hope will be that several of those players can make the step into the senior set-up in the seasons to come.
Jacob Ramsey has established himself as a regular in the side this season, whilst minutes have also been afforded to Cameron Archer – who scored four goals in two League Cup appearances, including a hat-trick against Barrow in the second round.
Aaron Ramsey and Lamare Bogarde are two other names the club will be keen to develop, whilst Carney Chukwuemeka has the potential to make a huge impression in the first-team and the club’s board will be keen to sign the 18-year-old to a new contract, with just 18 months remaining on his current deal.