After Aston Villa suffered a 2-0 defeat to Chelsea on Sunday, we’re left with more questions than answers as the pressure builds on Steven Gerrard.
While there was some encouragement to take from our four-game unbeaten run, albeit with the caveat that we were still nowhere near good enough in the attacking phase of the game and needed to turn draws into wins, the loss to Graham Potter’s side was a setback and puts more pressure on both Gerrard and the players to turn things around.
With the current Premier League table an almost carbon-copy of the standings this time last season under Dean Smith, the ‘continuous improvement’ that Villa CEO Christian Purslow spoke about when deciding to make the managerial change last November hasn’t come to fruition.
It’s not just a case of the last few weeks or perhaps even months, this goes back to the start of Gerrard’s tenure and after an initial lift following his appointment, Villa have shown a distinct lack of consistent improvement and progression to move forward. So, with Fulham ahead on Thursday night, are we entering the final chapters of Gerrard’s time at Villa or is a turnaround still possible?
Costly mistakes, wastefulness in front of goal
It must be said that the players have to take accountability too. From the mistake from Tyrone Mings for the opening goal to Emiliano Martinez being beaten by the flight of Mason Mount’s free-kick, we should have done better for both goals.
In addition, while we came up against an inspired Kepa Arrizabalaga, there were opportunities in the game that we should have been more clinical with and so question marks continue to be raised over our attacking options and their inability to kill games off.
With that in mind, Gerrard has been let down by his players to an extent in big moments, but that is only one piece of Villa’s struggles and he is certainly culpable too.
Encouraging first half but is there a long-term solution?
Our first-half performance was rightly praised as we enjoyed good spells and looked a real threat against Chelsea with the aforementioned Kepa keeping them in the game.
That said, where was this level of attacking performance in previous weeks and can we replicate it again next time out over the course of a full 90 minutes?
Villa have recorded just four wins in 21 matches and have picked up just nine points from the first 10 games of this season, which leaves us just a point and two places above the bottom three. While it’s temporary relief to see us play well and pick up the odd positive result here and there, it’s not enough. The wait goes on to see a sustained and significant improvement in our displays.
Gerrard outdone by Potter with second-half changes
For all the positives in relation to how Gerrard set us up to start the game and the tweaks he made to the line-up which allowed us to be a genuine threat, the second half was a completely different story.
Chelsea’s second goal certainly knocked us back and that was a killer blow, but a combination of Potter’s adjustments to shore things up defensively for them and get some control in the game coupled with Gerrard’s ineffective changes over the course of the half, our hopes whittled away meekly.
This comes back to whether or not Gerrard’s coaching and tactical ability is at a high enough level to compete with the top managers in the league, and whether or not he can make the right adjustments to influence games.
What to do with Watkins?
That’s now seven league games without a goal for Watkins, and that is a real problem for both him and the team as a whole as his confidence will be impacted.
On a positive note, his movement and pace was better utilised on the left wing on Sunday, and so he added a different kind of dynamic in the final third with Danny Ings played through the middle.
However, when chances did come his way he still couldn’t put them in the back of the net, and so Gerrard may well decide to stick with him out wide and hope that a goal isn’t too far away.
How to get the best out of Coutinho, Buendia
Being able to bring the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Emiliano Buendia off the bench would be a luxury for most sides, but ultimately if they’re not in form and able to influence games positively, it’s irrelevant.
Neither could make the desired impact on Sunday in the latter stages and although we must surely find a way to accommodate them both in the starting XI, importantly only if Gerrard can get the best out of them, we still haven’t managed to find the solutions.
Whether it’s Coutinho in a No.10 role or playing on the left of a midfield three rather than out on the wing or Buendia similarly flexible across the frontline behind a focal point, there is still a case to be made that we would be better off with them both in the side.
That said, with Watkins and Leon Bailey looking effective this past weekend, the South American pair may have to bide their time for a starting berth.