Steven Gerrard never experienced a six-match losing streak during 17 years as a player in England yet this is exactly what he must prevent in his first match as Aston Villa manager.
The former Liverpool and England captain takes charge of a squad with their confidence on the floor after five defeats in a row, the last of which – a 1-0 loss at Southampton on November 5 – led Villa to sack Dean Smith and send for Gerrard, who signed a three-and-a-half-year deal.
He will inherit a talented but flawed squad. The 41-year-old will have money to spend in January but before that he must navigate a meeting with Brighton a week tomorrow before tackling fixtures against Crystal Palace, Manchester City, Leicester and Liverpool.
The trip to Anfield on December 11 will make Gerrard’s heart beat a little faster yet Villa’s performances in the games before then may define his first season. Here Sportsmail looks at what Gerrard will find as he settles into the job.
Steven Gerrard is walking into a side that has lost their last five league games in a row
The former Rangers boss has a tricky run of fixtures before he can spend in January
After conceding only 46 goals last season, Villa have already let in 20 in 11 games this term.
Switching between a back three and back four has unsettled the players and in the last five games alone they have leaked 13. Gerrard will study footage of those matches and is likely to settle on a single defensive system at first. At Rangers he preferred a back four.
Right back Matty Cash and centre back Ezri Konsa have the qualities to prosper under Gerrard, who improved Rangers’ defence significantly after taking over in 2018. The Ibrox club kept 26 clean sheets in the League last season, conceding just 13 goals.
Gerrard was one of English football’s great leaders during his playing days and should recognise those qualities in Tyrone Mings, a rare vocal presence in a quiet dressing room.
Villa have conceded 20 goals in 11 games having only conceded 46 goals last season
Villa used the British record £100million they received from Manchester City for Jack Grealish to sign three attacking players – Emiliano Buendia, Danny Ings and Leon Bailey.
Ings managed three goals in nine games before picking up a hamstring injury, record signing Buendia has flickered without catching fire and Bailey has spent more time in the treatment room than on the pitch.
Ings had a close relationship with Gerrard during his time at Liverpool and will be confident of recapturing top form, while it will be fascinating to see what Gerrard does with Bailey and Buendia.
If he decides on the 4-3-3 system he liked best at Rangers, Ings is likely to play through the middle with Ollie Watkins wide on the left, with just one spot remaining for two of Villa’s marquee arrivals.
New signings such as Emiliano Buendia (left) are yet to hit their stride at Aston Villa
Different characters behind the scenes
One of Dean Smith’s many underrated qualities was his ability to collaborate successfully with different types of characters at the club.
He developed a close relationship with chief executive Christian Purslow and worked effectively with two sporting directors, Jesus Garcia Pitarch and Johan Lange, who have very different personalities.
Lange and his data analysts play a huge role in identifying possible signings and Smith was firmly on board with that process. Gerrard will be backed in January and if he starts well, the club are sure to follow his recommendations.
Gerrard’s aim was to bring his key staff from Rangers with him, which leaves Villa first-team coach Aaron Danks and set-piece expert Austin MacPhee in uncertain positions, while goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler is another who has remained from the Smith era.
Gerrard has worked with Christian Purslow (left) when the pair were at Liverpool
At different times this season, Villa have been without Watkins, Bailey, Ings, Douglas Luiz, Bertrand Traore, John McGinn and Matt Targett, while the bench for Smith’s final game contained only two senior outfield players.
Some injuries – such as the facial damage McGinn sustained against Everton in September – were unavoidable, but Gerrard will look closely at the situation to determine where improvements can be made. Time will tell if he attempts to bring Rangers doctor Mark Waller to Villa Park.
Gerrard worked with Dr Waller at Liverpool and took him to Ibrox when he accepted the job in 2018. Waller has already had a spell at Villa, alongside former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, and has Gerrard’s total trust.
Villa have suffered a number of injuries including to summer signing Leon Bailey
Well-established senior players
Smith generally had an excellent relationship with key members of his squad and established a ‘leadership group’ comprising captain Mings, McGinn, Watkins, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and veteran Ashley Young.
Gerrard will need these key figures to be singing from the same hymn sheet, especially in the early weeks of his reign. However, there is little doubt that he will demand an improvement in standards.
Only Spurs covered less ground than Villa over the first 11 matches of the season. Expect those statistics to move upwards sharply under Gerrard, as players will be desperate to impress their new boss.
Villa’s ‘leadership group’ including Tyrone Mings and John McGinn had a good relationship with Dean Smith