“He’s completely different. A physical specimen,” Steven Gerrard told Sky Sports. He’s talking about Erling Haaland. “We knew from afar that he has world-class capability and he’s definitely backing that now.” Then the smile comes.
“So I hope Pep will give him a rest tomorrow (Saturday).”
There hasn’t been much for the Aston Villa boss to smile about this season and few expect that to change when his side face Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at Villa Park on Saturday.
“Everyone expects them to win this match and win it comfortably,” he adds. “The challenge for us is to go and prove the world [wrong]. “
When Gerrard arrived at Villa in November, there was cautious optimism. In his first managerial job, he won the Rangers’ first league title in a decade. Villa was fifth but there was money to be spent and hopefully he can revitalize the club.
Caution gave way to belief when he won four of his first six matches, and lost the other two with a strange goal against Liverpool and Man City.
Nine months later, the mood changed.
Four defeats from the first five matches tested patience. There was booing last weekend when they lost to West Ham. Gerrard admits his concern. But what is the problem with Aston Villa, in his opinion, and what should change it?
“We need to stop receiving goals,” he says.
“From a defensive point of view, the effort and application was definitely there. We have a lot of people dying for the cause. Our goalkeeper makes saves, our defenders shoot, we win certain duels and situations.
“But it’s about the details against these high-level teams.”
He has receipts.
There were a few examples in the 2-1 defeat to Arsenal on Wednesday night. “The two goals we received – and a lot of the goals we received – were up to individuals.” He doesn’t name nouns in this case, but he probably shouldn’t.
“Showing someone the wrong way instead of their weaker side.” It’s easy to conclude that this is a reference to former captain Tyrone Mings who allowed Bukayo Saka to cut his favorite left foot and pass the ball to Gabriel Martinelli.
“Do you get up from people and shut them down or do you just get up for people and press your eyes? Those last little bits of defensive detail are what you have to get at the higher level because if you don’t, the best players in the world are going to hurt you.
“That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.”
There is exasperation there because Gerrard believes he dealt with the team’s defensive weaknesses when he signed famous Sevilla centre-back Diego Carlos for £26m in the summer. Brazilian Achilles was injured in the victory over Everton.
“He was brought in for a reason,” Gerrard says.
“It was to strengthen our abilities and help us, making our line of defense a lot stronger. Knowing that the individuals were quite similar, we knew we could have had similar issues for the previous six months. Losing him in the back was very important.”
Villa returned to the transfer market on deadline day to bring in Jan Bednarek from Southampton and Leander Dendoncker from Wolverhampton. “Getting two new faces should help us, as it brings us some energy, some quality and some competition for places.”
They are reasonable signings, and both have plenty of Premier League experience. But in the sense that this is why time is not on Gerrard’s side. Carlos is 29 years old. Philippe Coutinho is 30 years old. Lucas Denny replaced the younger Mattie Targett at Ma’s expense.
These weren’t engagements for the distant future, but acquisitions to help improve this team here and now. As a result, there is a weak desire among supporters to hear this talk about individual errors. They want to know how Gerrard plans to stop them from happening.
The answers will not come from the market now. “I’m glad it’s closed. You know exactly what you’re working on until January at least. It gives you more clarity.” This means that Gerrard has to get on the grass and coach these mistakes from his team.
“You need to keep working and keep giving them the right messages, keep looking for these players, keep putting them in scenarios they are going to face on match day. It is up to me and my coach to keep working and keep giving that information.
“But there is also a burden on individuals to do their work for the team. We need players who have been here for a while to move forward. And that is all-encompassing. It is up to the players to go and carry that out and deliver to us.”
At the other end of the playing field, more fluency is needed.
His tactics were criticized, with talk of the team’s tightness in midfield. What might have previously been foreshadowed as resilience had results come, is now interpreted as navigating through formations in search of solutions that never arrive.
“There are always people pointing the finger in this situation, but that won’t stop me from supporting myself and believing in what I believe in. I’m not going to make drastic changes to what I believe in. This team has shown they can. We believe we can get through it and make it turn.”
There is persistence, the kind of challenging streak that defined his football career and helped him change the power dynamic in Scotland. When asked what he might say to his supporters who are looking for some signs of progress behind the baldness statistics, he offered no trifles.
“I don’t think fans want cheap words right now. I think fans want action and results. Words don’t give you that, they’re performances. People are coming forward. We all take responsibility. We’re the ones who can correct it.”
“We need results. It’s inevitable. I’m definitely aware of where I am and the challenge ahead. There will be no evasion, it’s very much a matter of rolling up your sleeves. That’s what I told the players.”
“I don’t think anyone in the game enjoys being on the receiving end of this kind of outcome. They would be lying if they told you it was nice because it’s not. Everyone wants to win. Everyone wants to feel good and you feel proud.”
“But there is only one way to get back out there and that is to stay together and fight for every available point. It really shows the siege mentality and teamwork that we can get through during this difficult period. From my point of view, that makes me even more determined.”
“I know what I had in common. I knew there would be periods when we had to struggle and go through hard times. We’re going through one of those situations now. But I think it won’t be long before we feel a lot better about ourselves.”
Erling Haaland is waiting.
Steven Gerrard on the Man City Challenge
Does Erling Haaland make a slightly different challenge?
“I think so. You have to be hardworking with this individual, which is easier said than done because that’s the level of player you’re at. He’s a great player but if you focus too much on one player in this case, you can neglect the other world-class talent they have.” That’s what you’re dealing with here.”
Is the plan to press up on the field or defend deep?
“We’re definitely not going to stop the bus on the edge of our box but sometimes City force you back into these situations and you have to make sure you’re a threat in counter-attack situations. I think it’s going to be very difficult if you try to press City so high because they have that speed, that pass. Final. So you have to get that balance right to make sure you’re hitting counter in certain situations.”
Can Villa gain encouragement from previous meetings?
“In both of our City Tests before we had the chance to get points. One of them is that we never took a chance in the last minute at Holte End with young Carney. [Chukwuemeka]. And obviously we hit level two after 75 minutes, we ran out of steam. But we definitely shook City and made them anxious for long periods of that match so we are more than capable of hurting this team at the right moments.”
What is required to achieve a result against Manchester City?
“When you play against this level of a team, probably the most important thing is that there are no silly transitions. They are a high pressure team and they surround their bodies, so it is important that we have the ability to play away from the pressure but also hurt them.
“We need people who can run and carry us up the field. To get a break from things out of possession you have to have players who take responsibility, and give that back to themselves or else you won’t be able to deliver your punches.
“To get something against City you have to find the perfect performance. In the current form that seems very unlikely, I understood that. But this is football, this is the opportunity we had in 90 minutes. We need a result. It doesn’t matter who the challenge is. Next. We need this outcome that will take us down a path with a better look.”
Watch Aston Villa vs Manchester City match live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; Match starts at 5:30 p.m