Steven Gerrard was unveiled as the new Aston Villa manager on Thursday, following the sacking of Dean Smith after Friday’s 1-0 defeat to Southampton.
Gerrard has left his role as manager of Rangers after three years to make the move south of the border for his first senior management job in English football.
The former Liverpool captain leaves Ibrox with his head held high, having ended Celtic’s era of total dominance in Scottish football during his time in Glasgow. He also leaves the ‘Gers in a strong position, top of the table with 13 games played and with a real chance of qualifying from their group in the Europa League.
Having finally beaten fierce rivals Celtic to the title last season, another title appeared to be on the horizon for Gerrard’s Rangers side and that is why many doubted he would leave midway through the season when his name was first being linked to the Villa job.
Is Gerrard ready to take on EPL task?
The lure of the Premier League, and a club who seemingly have money to spend, proved too great for Gerrard. Despite his success in Scotland, there are some doubts over Gerrard as a manager and, as a result, this is an appointment that presents an element of risk for all parties.
Firstly, the Scottish Premier League is a league long dominated by the Old Firm with Aberdeen the last team other than Celtic or Rangers to win the Scottish top flight, doing so in 1985.
While the job Gerrard has done at Rangers has undoubtedly been impressive, the rise of his Rangers side has coincided with the demise of Celtic. Celtic perhaps grew complacent due to their lack of competition, having won nine consecutive titles, and things had gone slightly stale at Celtic Park.
This, coupled with a period of investment from Rangers, spelled the end of Celtic’s decade of dominance ,but Gerrard’s role in this should not be discounted.
The main concern however, is that success in Scotland has not always been a reliable indicator of success in England. Neil Lennon is the prime example of this, with his three consecutive titles in Scotland from the 2011/12 season followed by a dismal spell in charge of Bolton Wanderers.
Villa have cash to splash about
Aston Villa spent a lot of money over the summer, following the departure of talisman Jack Grealish to Manchester City for £100 million.
Emiliano Buendia joined for £34.5 million from Norwich City, with Leon Bailey and Danny Ings joining for £28.8 million and £30 million respectively. Ashley Young also returned to Villa for free, with Axel Tuanzebe joining on loan from Manchester United.
It was Dean Smith’s inability to embed these signings that ultimately saw him lose his job. Villa had a small squad last season but were a tight-knit group, and Smith knew his best team.
This season, with the loss of Grealish and the new additions, it was clear Smith didn’t know his strongest 11. Buendia and Bailey have been very disappointing, while Ings has only managed three goals in the league so far. The three players acquired by Villa with the Grealish money have failed to deliver and, while they must shoulder some of the blame, it was Smith who failed to get a tune out of them.
Therefore, if Gerrard is to be a success at Villa, he will need to find a way to fit all of his best players into his starting 11 and get the best out of them. He will also be tasked with helping a number of players return to form, with club captain Tyrone Mings in particular having really struggled of late.
One advantage Gerrard has is his reputation as a player. The Champions League winner only retired from playing in 2016 so his outstanding career is fresh in the memory of players. It is a career that commands respect and players will be desperate to impress Gerrard which could see a change in fortunes for Villa, at least in the short-term.
His demeanour as a player was always of a man with exceptionally high standards and, from his work as a manager, this is something that he has carried into his management so if players are not performing then he will not hesitate to let them know.
This is a huge job for Gerrard. Villa are a very well supported club and have owners who have shown their ambition recently through their investment in the side. It will no doubt be a big challenge for Gerrard but it is one that he will relish. While it would have been easy for Gerrard to continue at Rangers and add to his growing reputation with another league title, it is the cut-throat Premier League that will really test his credentials.
Many will see this as something of a dress rehearsal for the Liverpool job, and Gerrard has made no secret of his desire to one day manage his hometown club.
If he is successful at Villa then this will only increase the clamour for him to manage the club where his playing days made him a legend. Despite the size of Rangers as a club, the jump from Rangers to Liverpool may have proved too great for Gerrard. Success at Villa could be the Premier League pathway that he requires to make that step.
The flipside of that, though, is that if things don’t go well for Gerrard then this may rule him out of the running should the Liverpool job become available.
Jurgen Klopp’s current Liverpool contract expires in the summer of 2024. Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa contract also expires in summer 2024. It is highly unlikely that this has happened by mere coincidence and it is likely that Gerrard agreed to this with a view of being in the running for the Liverpool job in two-and-a-half years’ time.
A lot can happen in this relatively short space of time. This is a risk for Gerrard, but if it puts him in the ascendency for the Liverpool job then he will consider it very much a risk worth taking.