Steven Gerrard is a born winner – that, we can all agree on.
Losing will never suffice for the man who won two FA Cups, a UEFA Cup and a Champions League (amongst other titles) as a player for Liverpool and, of course, the Scottish Premiership with Rangers last season.
That attitude has clearly been transferred into his newest role as Aston Villa head coach, where he began by winning his first two outings – a 2-0 win over Brighton before beating Crystal Palace 2-1.
While those two fixtures presented sturdy tests against teams Villa need to be pulling ahead of if they’re to progress under their new boss (tests which he passed), his third outing was against a different beast altogether.
Against an irrepressible Manchester City – who evidently have serious ambitions of finally achieving a Premier League and Champions League double – there was little expectation of Gerrard becoming the first Villa boss in history to win his first three games in charge.
The home fans were, as it turned out, right to be driven more by hope than expectation on the night, eventually losing 2-1 to a devastating City side. Their dominant quality became evident within the opening two minutes, by which time the visitors had two clear-cut opportunities to pull ahead.
In truth, the first half was utter domination. The staggering control, composure and ruthlessness contained within every facet of Pep Guardiola’s side’s play simply overwhelmed Villa.
As a result, by the halfway point, City were 2-0 up. The first goal was a result of the overloads on the wings, giving Raheem Sterling the opportunity and subsequent confidence to run his full-back ragged and eventually pull back for Ruben Dias to score.
The second goal was born out of a surprising incoherence in Villa’s collective pressing and a defensive imbalance. Clearly trying to show initiative and press high up the pitch, Gerrard’s men were undone with three passes from box to box.
Ryiad Mahrez wriggled out of a tight spot and released the ball to Fernandinho, who in turn sent a raking ball into the channel for Gabriel Jesus, who then lofted a perfect cross into the path of Bernardo Silva to finish with a gorgeous first-time volley.
Boom. The perfect counter attack, made to look effortless and easy as a result of Villa’s incongruous defensive shapes.
You’re probably wondering where on earth the positives can be found, right?
Well, those would appear throughout the second half.
Clearly coming out for the second period with an amended shape, an altered attitude and an added intensity, it was the home side who dominated for large parts.
It took the hosts under 90 seconds to get back into the game courtesy of a brilliant Ollie Watkins finish. Thereafter, City may have continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession, but it was Villa who looked the more threatening.
Douglas Luiz was pulled into a wider area to, firstly, stifle the wide threat of Joao Cancelo and Mahrez, and secondly, find more space to stamp his creative mark on proceedings. The Brazilian was key to Villa’s dominance in the second period, spreading play superbly and eventually leaving the field with five key passes to his name – including the assist to the aforementioned Watkins strike.
The other significant tweaks proved to be moving the wide forwards closer to Watkins, allowing Villa much more opportunity for control when firing the ball into their frontman and therefore the tools to build play much higher up the pitch.
Whereas Marvelous Nakamba was sitting deep before the interval, he was pressing aggressively during the second half, for example, therefore taking the game to City rather than inviting pressure.
Generally speaking, half time was the turning point in the match. It showed that Gerrard knows what he’s doing at this level and, actually, is able to compete with the best in the world.
His decisive and brave management completely altered the momentum of Wednesday night’s clash and, were it not for youngster Carney Chukwuemeka fluffing his lines when one-on-one with Ederson, the Villans would most likely have been celebrating a point against the Champions.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. But the fact that Villa can feel disappointment at a narrow 2-1 defeat to this City side is proof of the progression and shift already occurring under Gerrard – and Wednesday night provided many more positives to take from Villa’s new regime.