As 2021 draws to a close, Aston Villa have responded well in recent weeks after a torrid run of form threatened to derail our season in the early stages.
Villa suffered five consecutive defeats across October and November, which ultimately culminated in the decision to part company with Dean Smith and appoint Steven Gerrard as his successor.
Stranded towards the wrong end of the table and having had such high hopes and expectations heading into the campaign despite the loss of talisman Jack Grealish, it was a bitterly disappointing turn of events and a wrong that needed to be put right as soon as possible.
Fortunately, our form and level of performance has improved since Gerrard took charge, and there are three key factors which have been crucial in our resurgence and attempt to get back on track.
Solid defensive base
Things were looking positive following our 1-0 win over Man Utd at Old Trafford on September 25, but five losses on the bounce followed as Villa conceded 13 goals in those outings.
In the seven games since Gerrard’s appointment, Villa have conceded eight goals, keeping two clean sheets along the way.
Our intent and urgency has been much better in recent weeks, and becoming harder to beat and having a solid defensive base have been important characteristics that the Villa boss has been trying to establish. If we can maintain this level and improve further, it will an important step in our progression.
That was arguably the most basic and fundamental improvement that he needed to make to start things off, and the players have responded well as their work off the ball in recent weeks is clearly a sign of buying into what the manager is telling them.
Midfield dynamism emerges
In the latter stages of Smith’s tenure, one of the biggest issues was our midfield and how we were being consistently overrun and were lacking any sort of control in that area either on or off the ball.
That in turn naturally led to calls for a new signing in the January transfer window, although in fairness that was a key criticism of our summer transfer work as many fans felt at that time we needed a defensive midfielder to shore up that area of the pitch.
While that profile of player never arrived, it may still be the case in some fans’ opinion and Gerrard may well have identified that as a weakness himself too, what he has done is add more dynamism to our midfield with the current options at his disposal.
Villa have been more organised and compact off the ball while having quality in the side to keep possession better and build attacks more consistently. These are the same players who struggled previously, and although injuries didn’t help Smith as he was missing key individuals seemingly every week, it’s significant that there has been a change in their form and approach.
Watkins rediscovers good form
After scoring just two goals in his first nine Premier League games of the season, Ollie Watkins has now scored three in his last seven with Gerrard at the helm.
Getting the 25-year-old scoring regularly is going to be a pivotal part of our success, and it’s promising that he’s not only finding the back of the net more consistently under Gerrard, but he just looks a much more threatening option in the final third in general again.
It’s hoped that he can continue that in the second half of the Premier League campaign, while it’s important that he continues to receive quality service on which he can thrive either as a direct goal threat or as a provider for others using his movement and all-round attacking quality to good effect.
Naturally, there is still concern over his partnership with Danny Ings, as although there were some positive signs against Chelsea as the pair linked up well on occasion, it still isn’t enough to be fully convinced that the pair can co-exist and become a successful double act for Villa up front.
That’s a key decision for Gerrard moving forward in terms of whether or not he persists with it or allows Watkins to flourish in his preferred role as the lead striker, rather than having to drop off or work in tandem with Ings up top.
It’s also important to note the defensive work that Watkins puts in with his pressing and pressure on the opposition’s defence, and he’s certainly more influential in that phase of the game when he’s up top leading the line.
Time will tell what Gerrard goes with, but coupled with the other factors noted above, he’s establishing an identity, a style of play and philosophy at Villa, and it’s about building on our strengths and allowing our best players to be as influential as possible to kick on from now until May.