Christian Purslow was crystal clear when he presented new Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard to the assembled media in the Holte Suite in Villa Park on November 18, 2021.
“What we expect and what Steven has promised to deliver is continuous improvement in our team and I’m sure he will,” bellowed the CEO. No wonder Gerrard shifted in his seat as Purslow spoke the words. At the time, he was asked if he saw Villa as a staging point on his route to the track in Liverpool. He hasn’t been asked that question for a while.
Gerrard was sacked less than two hours after Thursday’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at Fulham, leaving Villa above the relegation zone on goal difference alone.
While even Gerrard’s staunchest supporters couldn’t claim he’s done a good job at Villa, the club’s 41-word exit statement, with a one-line quote from a spokesperson, was not a classy way to describe any of the contemporary greats of English football. It would certainly have been wiser to let the dust settle and ring the club’s Bodymoor Heath training ground on Friday morning. Whatever you think of Gerrard the manager, he deserved more.
Steven Gerrard was sacked by Aston Villa after the dismal 3-0 defeat to Fulham on Thursday
Defeat to the newly promoted side was the last straw for Gerrard, who has been under pressure in recent weeks
In 2022, Gerrard’s Villa amassed 32 points from 31 matches – a terrible win for a club with such resources. Owners Nassef Sawiris – who saw the debacle at Craven Cottage – and Wes Edens backed Gerrard on the market, but the decision to sign his former Liverpool team-mate Philippe Coutinho permanently, even though he was clearly a fading force, will leave the 42 forever Chase. -year-old has been in charge for 11 months.
If the Coutinho deal had been Gerrard’s only misstep, it would have been forgivable. Instead, it is the symbol of a reign that, apart from the first weeks, never seemed to have a clear idea of where it was going or how to get there.
Gerrard leaves with Villa 17th in the table. When he took over from Dean Smith, they were in exactly the same place. That’s not much to show for a net transfer fee of £52million, not if your owners are worth £10bn together and believe the sky is the limit for this club.
Aston Villa owners Nassef Sawiris (right) and Wes Edens (left) want to appoint elite coach
One of the best midfielders of his generation, Gerrard operates more as a traditional ‘manager’ figure than as a head coach. Much of the work on the training ground was carried out by his team of lieutenants led by Michael Beale – who took over as Queens Park Rangers manager last summer – and then Neil Critchley, Beale’s replacement, with Gerrard overseeing everything and intervened where he saw fit.
The majority of the squad respected Gerrard and wanted to do the right thing for him, but after Beale’s departure, Sportsmail understands that certain players found the level of the training sessions a bit deteriorating. “With Michael, we felt like both him and Stevie G were the managers,” goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez said earlier this year. An insider cited a lack of ‘depth’ in training after Beale left and the safety-first style of play became a drag for many.
Gerrard’s dealings with Tyrone Mings also drew attention in ways that could have been avoided.
Mings was stripped of his captaincy just a week before the start of the season, dropped out before the opening game at Bournemouth, was publicly criticized by Gerrard – then returned to base for the next game at home against Everton.
Philippe Coutinho’s signing appeared to haunt Gerrard as he struggled to perform for Villa
Coutinho (left) was initially loaned out before Gerrard pushed for a permanent contract
These decisions are for a manager to make, but the timing and coverage could certainly have been better, even though Gerrard and Mings had a perfectly good relationship. It doesn’t help that new skipper John McGinn has struggled for form and came close to being dropped at least once.
Then there were the transfers. Apart from the fact that Gerrard had played with him from 2013-15, what was the basis for the huge financial outlay on Coutinho after a loan spell that, barring a few magical displays, was enough on its own? What did Villa think they had seen in the 2022 version of Coutinho that every other club had missed? Did they ever wonder why they had gotten a clear point with a once great player?
How did Gerrard’s desire to bring seasoned players near their 30s match sporting director Johan Lange’s quest to find emerging talent through a data-driven approach? How did Villa end the summer transfer window with seven central midfielders in their roster but no orthodox broad man?
Gerrard has always embraced modern recruiting and analytics methods, but at times he found the emphasis on data overdone. “You have to talk about dates at Aston Villa,” he noted during his last pre-match press conference. “You don’t have a choice. It is everywhere! Villa love dates and in my position you have to be used to them. Do I like data? If it’s good, yes.
‘One thing data doesn’t give you, sometimes in football you have to drop something for you, a bit of luck. We try to put it in context. For example, we drew 1-1 in Nottingham Forest and our xG (expected goals) was very low. But that doesn’t take into account certain things that were big odds in the game.”
The way Gerrard handled struggling defender Tyrone Mings drew attention in a way that could have been prevented
Gerrard was hit by the loss of first-team coach Michael Beale, who took over at QPR
Gerrard’s dedication could never be faulted, and luck was often against him. Major summer signings Boubacar Kamara and Diego Carlos made just 10 appearances together before sustaining significant injuries. Matty Cash and Jacob Ramsey have improved under his leadership and while his method is open to question, there is no doubt that Gerrard Mings has recovered in strong form and Ezri Konsa has also looked a lot more like his old self.
Fans in the ground will sing whatever they want, but some of the stick Gerrard took on social media felt over the top at times. Gerrard never shied away from difficult issues, never tried to evade responsibility – ‘It’s up to me’ was a well-known expression when trying to explain a subpar rendering – and never compared his own playing career to that of his team. One of the biggest names in English football was never ‘big time’ and carried himself everywhere with dignity.
But in the end Gerrard went down because of that deadly combination for managers: fed up fans, boring football and poor results. Whatever Gerrard’s time at Villa, it certainly wasn’t ‘continuous improvement’. The next man will operate under similarly ruthless conditions.