It hasn't been the greatest of starts to the new Premier League season for Steven Gerrard's Aston Villa. With an opening day loss to Bournemouth, a not so convincing win against Everton, and another loss to Crystal Palace, supporters are beginning to ask questions.
With West Ham, Arsenal and Manchester City on the horizon, there's a real concern among the Villa fanbase that the club could easily be sat on only three points after the first six games.
In fact, the performances have been so poor that it's made a lot of people reconsider whether or not this summer's transfer window has actually been a successful one. Maybe more worryingly, it's also made a lot of fans reconsider whether or not the appointment of Steven Gerrard was the correct one..
In this article I want to take a deeper dive into whether or not it's actually working with Gerrard, and whether or not the writing may already be on the wall.
Working With What We Have
If there's one giant problem that stood out amongst everything else this past weekend, it was how much certain players have improved under their new managers at other clubs.
In Villa's own game against Palace, I couldn't help but look enviously at what Patrick Vieira has achieved with the players at his disposal. When Vieira took over at Palace, that team was seen as relegation fodder. A group of players who many believed suited the Championship rather than the Premier League.
One year on and not only has Vieira brought in some quality talent, but he's also massively improved the players that he originally inherited. There's no greater example of this than Jeffrey Schlupp, the man who should have had a goal after Villa's defence pathetically fell apart on Saturday afternoon before having it ruled out by VAR.
Schlupp's transition from a below average left-back under Roy Hodgson, to a game changing midfielder under Vieira, shows how the Palace manager is capable of spotting talent and improving individual players. This is something that has happened throughout the Crystal Palace team over the past twelve months.
The same can be said about Newcastle under Eddie Howe, Brighton under Graham Potter, and even Leeds under Jesse Marsch judging by recent displays. On a slightly larger scale, Arsenal under Mikel Arteta is another example of a team that is improving homegrown talent while successfully integrating them with exciting new signings.
Can we honestly say Steven Gerrard has done the same at Aston Villa?
There is definitely a strong argument to be made that Jacob Ramsey has hugely improved under Gerrard. Although he was beginning to break through under Dean Smith, it was under Gerrard that Ramsey began to play with a new level of confidence. He became more direct, deadly in front of goal, and is now a serious threat in Villa's midfield.
Marvelous Nakamba also had an upturn in form when Gerrard arrived, but injury issues and the arrival of Boubacar Kamara means we'll likely never find out if Nakamba would have continued on his upward trajectory.
In all honesty, It's really difficult to pick out another player who has seen great improvement since Gerrard's arrival. Potentially Matty Cash could be brought into this conversation, but he felt like he was well on his way to becoming as good as he is today under Smith anyway.
A major concern for Villa could actually be how many players have regressed under Gerrard. This might feel like an over reaction, but is it too harsh to say that Ezri Konsa has only gone backwards since Gerrard's arrival? John McGinn seems to be standing still in terms of progression, and may have even gone backwards since being named captain.
Even Gerrard's main man, Philippe Coutinho. He came into Villa full of piss and vinegar, looking to prove a point while showing glimpses of the magician who once graced the Premier League in Liverpool colours. As time has gone on, however, Coutinho resembles more of a ghost than a magician. If Gerrard can't even get the best out of his favourite player, then what chance does everybody else have?
Sure, Emi Buendia seems to only be getting better. But I can't help but feel that's in spite of the manager rather than because of him.
Jacob Ramsey's growth does show that Gerrard is capable of improving players, and I hope we see more of it. But based on what we've seen so far, there's more to be concerned about than there is to celebrate.
It's not just individual player improvement that the likes of Palace, Newcastle and Brighton all have in common, it's their identities and a clear style of play. Something that Villa is severely lacking.
This issue has been floated around for a while now between Villa supporters, but what is the Aston Villa identity under Steven Gerrard? It's a near impossible question to answer.
The hope was always that once Gerrard had a pre-season under his belt, we'd have a clearer idea of how Villa would look going into the new season. The harsh truth, though, is that nothing appears to have changed.
Defensive set pieces are worse than ever, the overreliance of Digne and Cash aimlessly looping crosses into the box is still there, and the midfield still feels unbalanced despite the exciting addition of Boubacar Kamara.
Although this all reads as doom and gloom, it is very important to point out certain issues that were beyond Gerrard's control. The departure of Micheal Beale to QPR was always going to have a negative impact. And to make matters worse, Beale's replacement, Neil Critchley, was unable to join up with the team on the pre-season tour.
It's no secret that Gerrard prefers to outsource a lot of training ground work to his assistants, meaning that Critchley is likely to be responsible for implementing whatever Villa's style of play is meant to be. Having to do this during the season rather than in pre-season is far from ideal, but it could be a reason why Villa feel like they currently have no direction compared to teams around them.
Transfer Window Shambles
After the early additions of Boubacar Kamara and Diego Carlos, the feeling around Villa Park was that the club was in for an all-time great transfer window. Fast forward a few months and the mood seems to have drastically flipped.
Over the past 48 hours, Villa were linked with Ismaïla Sarr. Then a fee with Watford was reportedly agreed, and the official signing appeared to be imminent. However, the deal seems to have fallen apart sometime last night, with Gerrard himself apparently having doubts over the signing.
There's a lot to unpack here. How did the deal get this far along if Gerrard was never keen on the player in the first place? Why was Villa signing an out and out winger when Gerrard avoids using them? Does this point to a divide between Gerrard and Johan Lange? This is, of course, all speculation and rumour at this point so it wouldn't be fair to criticise anybody over an issue we're not fully aware of.
Having said all that, there's no denying that transfer talk such as this feels completely removed from the smart and fast deals Villa were pulling off at the beginning of the window. Surely every supporter is in agreement that a number 8 and a centre-back replacement for the injured Diego Carlos is the priority? So it begs the question why there's drama surrounding the signing of a new winger?
These are not the sort of questions Villa want hanging around the club as we enter the final stages of this summer's transfer window.
The Pull Of Gerrard
While we're talking transfers, it's only fair to spend a little time focusing on what is one of Gerrard's biggest assets, his pulling power.
Despite what he has or hasn't done with them, the list of players that Gerrard has been able to talk through the door is nothing short of astounding in comparison to what Villa were used to.
Phillipe Coutinho, Lucas Digne, Boubacar Kamara, and Diego Carlos are all names who very likely would not be here if not for Steven Gerrard's ability to sweet talk them and sell them on the Villa project. There's something to be said for that. Even if he is struggling to improve individual players, there's no denying that he's improved the squad with incomings over the past nine months.
Some may argue that these incomings are mostly down to Lange and Purslow, but players of this quality only began arriving after Gerrard did, so we should be giving him the benefit of the doubt here.
Will he stay or will he go now?
I opened this article questioning whether or not the writing was already on the wall for Steven Gerrard, and after breaking everything down, it's still difficult to answer.
There are certain issues I have yet to mention that are difficult to come back from. Away fans beginning to turn, the questionable management of Tyrone Mings, the captaincy change, snapping at the media, and most importantly, the results. Only winning three games out of the last fifteen will have any manager on thin ice. These are all enormous red flags and we've seen managers go for much less.
Having said that, I do believe Gerrard will be given time. If we were to sign two or three much needed players before the window shuts, then it's only fair to see how a new-look team plays in the coming games.
Neil Critchley also needs more than three games to really stamp some sort of style onto this Villa team. And let's be honest, if Villa miraculously come away with more than six points from the next three games, then this entire discussion will be quickly forgotten about. As football fans, we are fickle, and we all know it.
On the other hand, if no effective signings are brought in, and if Villa lose the next three, then there's no doubt that Villa Park could turn very toxic very quickly. Despite reports that Gerrard is fully backed, the sacking of Dean Smith is all the proof needed that the Aston Villa board will not accept the club moving backwards. So maybe, just maybe, Steven Gerrard might just need to keep an eye out for any incoming cabbages being thrown his way.
Do you think time is up for Gerrard? Is the fanbase just overreacting? Let us know your thoughts and, as always, UP THE VILLA!