This time last week, Aston Villa’s Saturday match against Watford looked like a prime opportunity for the Birmingham side to turn around a recent poor run of results.
Watford, who hadn’t won since November 20, were goalless in their previous four matches and recently dropped into relegation contention.
Villa, with one win in their last seven and fresh off a disappointing result at Newcastle the week prior, could see their European aspirations beginning to fade since the New Year, but a loss to lowly Watford was tough to fathom.
Some in the media said Villa were one of the winners of the January transfer window. With the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Lucas Digne, and Calum Chambers arriving all for under £30 million, it’s hard to argue with the assessment.
Yet, still, Villa dropped a 1-0 decision at home.
They dominated possession from minute one, generated 20 shots to Watford’s eight, and had every opportunity to secure three points, but came away with absolutely nothing.
Supporters have been left scratching their heads, but it doesn’t take deep analysis to see Steven Gerrard’s squad has worrying deficiencies and may not be fit to play the system the gaffer wants to employ.
Villa still need a defensive midfielder
The most glaring need in the Villa side is still a central defensive midfielder.
Gerrard was up front about his pursuit for one such player in the January window, but a move never materialized for Brighton’s Yves Bissouma.
As such, Gerrard, without the services of Marvelous Nakamba, has relied upon Douglas Luiz to play in front of the central defenders.
But Luiz isn’t a true No. 6. Villa fans know this already; he’s underwhelmed from deep positions since joining in the summer of 2019. Is he currently Gerrard’s best option for the role? Maybe, but that doesn’t change the fact that his deficiencies are having a rippling effect throughout the XI.
While good on the ball–something Nakamba cannot say about himself–Luiz shields the defense poorly, is not a good ball-winner, and is often caught up-field, forcing Jacob Ramsey or John McGinn to drop off in compensation.
Villa will seek a defensive midfielder in the summer–which could spell the end of Luiz’s time with the club–but until then, what’s the plan?
Gerrard’s tactics are stale
Well it didn’t take long for clubs around the Premier League to figure out Gerrard’s Aston Villa, did it?
Since arriving, Gerrard’s favored a 4-3-2-1 formation with two attacking midfielders playing in behind a lone striker. Luiz plays in front of the center backs and behind two No. 8’s, typically Ramsey and McGinn.
At times, Villa have looked unstoppable. Coutinho, Ramsey, and Emi Buendia have played well off of one another, and Digne has provided welcome attacking options from the left.
Yet at the same time, the side look vulnerable on the counter, and in recent matches, there’s an obvious disconnect between the defense and the midfield.
Why’s this? Gerrard encourages the full backs to get high up the pitch, so much so that it’s tough to progress the ball through the midfield. Ramsey and McGinn have been forced to drop into deep positions to cover Digne, Luiz, and Matty Cash, and the center backs have often been left out to dry.
We saw it on Saturday, when Watford had two chances on the break late in the second half. Emmanuel Dennis took advantage of one and finished off Villa in the 78th minute.
Ollie Watkins looks a shadow of his former self, and it’s because we don’t see him drift into the wide channels as much as he did under Dean Smith. With the full backs and attacking midfielders in higher and wider positions, Watkins is often locked into the middle of the park.
Danny Ings started at the weekend and had a handful of decent chances. In truth, he is probably better suited as a lone forward in the current system Gerrard seems hellbent on employing.
How can Gerrard freshen up the squad?
We’ll learn a lot about Gerrard’s intentions for the rest of the season this weekend when Villa visit Brighton. Either the gaffer deploys the same system, or decides to shake things up.
If he sticks with the 4-3-2-1, it’s time to change up the personnel. Maybe try Chambers in the No. 6 role; he played there with Fulham to great fanfare a few seasons ago.
The full backs must drop off a bit to allow the midfielders opportunities to get up field and join the attack. Ramsey was a real threat against Leeds on February 9; he hasn’t had the same opportunities in the past two matches.
Ings should start as well; he’s a better finisher than Watkins and does more with less of the ball. Perhaps Leon Bailey starts instead of Buendia, or Ramsey plays higher with Morgan Sanson slotting in as one of the No. 8’s.
The other option is to change the formation entirely. In a 4-3-3, Bailey could start from the right and Coutinho from the left. Ramsey and McGinn would have more space to advance and join the attack, and the full backs would provide better defensive cover.
Either way, the squad needs a shake up. It’s simply not working at the moment, and if Gerrard can’t figure it out soon he’s going to come under pressure from passionate supporters and ambitious owners alike.