Aston Villa travel to Brighton on Saturday with the pressure and concern building after our 1-0 defeat to Watford.
Off the back of our unacceptable performance and result at Newcastle Utd last time out, the expectation was that Villa would produce a response and get back on track this past weekend.
Instead, our struggles continued for a second consecutive game, and ultimately Steven Gerrard now has big decisions to make between now and the end of the season if we are to have the strong finish to the Premier League campaign that he and the club desires heading into the summer transfer window.
Gerrard shirked a big call
Speaking immediately after that loss at Newcastle, Gerrard conceded that he make have to make several changes to his starting line-up for this game given the poor level of our performance.
Ultimately though when it came to it on Saturday afternoon, it was just the one change up front with Danny Ings coming in to replace Ollie Watkins.
While he suggested it was down to players ‘having something in the bank’ with him after their positive performances prior to that game, that arguably isn’t the right way to go about it. The issues go beyond just a one-off performance, it’s about making the tweaks that make us a better side in the long run and addressing key flaws in the current XI, and so more changes were, and are, needed.
Lack of goalscoring threat an issue now
After months of being concerned over conceding too many goals and not being a strong enough outfit defensively, we’re also now struggling at the other end of the pitch in the last two games.
Back-to-back outings without a goal have led to question marks over how we’re not getting more out of an attacking group consisting of Ollie Watkins, Danny Ings, Philippe Coutinho, Emiliano Buendia and Leon Bailey, and that’s down to Gerrard and his staff to find the best way to allow them to be effective and decisive.
We continue to struggle to find the right balance in the side, and it makes Gerrard’s job all the more difficult that he now has to think about problems at both ends of the pitch.
Service to frontman will cause problems
Building on the point above, both Watkins and Ings have struggled in the last two games. That doesn’t mean they’ve both just lost their touch or become bad players over a few weeks, it should instead point to problems with the system and service into them.
As we saw against Newcastle, Watkins was asked to be a target man of sort, to hold the ball up and link play together with his creative teammates around him. That doesn’t play to his strengths and get the best out of him, and so it was a questionable style to play with him.
While there was an improvement with Ings as we looked to play him in behind defences with probing through balls from Buendia in particular, it didn’t last very long. We need to provide the type of service that Watkins and Ings have both proven previously that they thrive off.
Sanson must get chance to provide solution
While it’s unclear why Douglas Luiz is still being played as our No. 6, it is certainly now time to put a stop to that experiment.
The Brazilian international is a talented player, there is no doubting his ability. The problem is is that he is not a natural deeper-lying midfielder who fully embraces the responsibilities involved in protecting the backline and being the foundation of the side in that role.
He’s too passive, isn’t physically imposing enough and doesn’t have the positional awareness to play that position. In turn, whether it’s Morgan Sanson, which at this point is Gerrard’s best option, or Tim Iroegbunam, Villa have to do something to find a solution rather than just keep making the same critical mistake as we’re too often left exposed in that area and always seem to struggle to maintain control over games.
Flexibility, balance needed in system
Based on the success that Leeds had against us after we went 3-1 up to now both Newcastle and Watford catching us out and nullifying our threat, Gerrard needs to show more flexibility in the system that he is deploying.
Villa are too often left entirely exposed defensively on the counter attack and in transition if just one pass is misplaced, while for all the creativity in the side, we didn’t even look like scoring for large periods of the last two games.
While there isn’t necessarily a need to drop any of Ramsey, Coutinho or Buendia as they have all shown their quality this season, albeit perhaps a little too inconsistently now, we have to adjust the way we set ourselves up both in and out of possession to be more in control of encounters otherwise we’ll continue to be vulnerable in the same areas.