Aston Villa snapped a five-game losing streak with a 2-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion in Steven Gerrard’s managerial debut on Saturday afternoon.
The former Rangers head coach organized his side in a 4-3-3 formation and deployed an aggressive press early on, but by the middle part of the first half the pressure tailed off considerably.
A couple of big saves by Emi Martinez kept the sides deadlocked at 0-0, but impact substitutes Ashley Young, Leon Bailey, and Anwar El Ghazi played key roles in two late Villa goals.
All three factored considerably in Ollie Watkins’ 84th-minute goal, which blew the game wide open and led to Tyrone Mings’ 89th-minute strike.
There were ups and downs throughout the match, but it was crucial for Gerrard to pick up his first win at first asking. Snapping the skid in the process was the icing on the cake.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from the match.
The return of progressive football
We saw glimpses of very positive football from Aston Villa on Saturday afternoon, and that’s something we haven’t said much this season.
Early in the first half and later in the second, Villa played smart 1-2 passing sequences through the midfield that sprung Watkins and Matt Target on the left flank.
Emi Buendia moved into midfield on a few occasions to link up with Jacob Ramsey, who was noticeably strong in the victory. The 20-year-old completed 91% of his passes–including five of five long passes–won four fouls, and had four progressive carries as per @VillaAnalytics.
A much more proficient pressing side, Villa entered the match with the fifth-worst press in the Premier League, according to @pgr_analytics on Twitter, but had 133 pressures to Brighton’s 122. Brighton were fifth in the league in pressures but were held to their second-lowest expected goals rating.
The full backs were active, providing cover in midfield and extra pressure in the final third. Their involvement was typical of a Gerrard side.
Ashley Young: rolling back the clock
Young replaced Buendia in the 74th minute and turned the match on its head.
A surprise to many, but not to Gerrard, who reportedly considered playing Young in a No. 10 role after sparkling in training before the match.
The 36-year-old assisted on Watkins’ 84th-minute strike and went on to lead Villa in shot-creating actions despite playing fewer than 20 minutes.
Young, who won a Serie A title at Inter Milan last season, has shown he’s still an impact player on the pitch and an influential mentor in the dressing room.
Gerrard said of his former England teammate: “I know Ash extremely well. He’s been absolutely outstanding since I walked through the door. He was ready today, and we will continue to lean on him.”
A positive result, but still a lot of work to do
Villa secured a much-needed 2-0 victory over a strong Brighton side in Gerrard’s debut, and while that’s the most important takeaway from Saturday’s match, there’s still a lot of work to do.
There was a considerable drop-off from Villa from around the midway point of the first half until the 70th minute. While the three-man high press was successful early and sporadically throughout the rest of the match, Brighton–ever comfortable in possession–eventually found ways around the Villa block.
There’s still a lack of cohesion amongst the front three of Watkins, Buendia, and Danny Ings. This was the first match Watkins started wide since joining the club, and it wasn’t until he moved centrally that he found his stride.
Among Gerrard’s most pressing tasks is to find the right balance in attack. Watkins is better through the middle, but where does that leave Ings? He and Buendia have found no success playing in a No. 10 role, but the latter can play wide right; he just hasn’t found his form yet.
Bailey is dynamic, but is he willing to put in the work in terms of pressing? Is his influence better served as a substitute?
And in midfield: Marvelous Nakamba had a strong outing as a No. 6 on Saturday, but will his ball-moving deficiencies hold him back going forward?
So while it’s great to see Villa get back in the win column, there’s a lot that needs sorting. Gerrard will have his hands full, but in the meantime, it’s good to get back to winning ways.