'Watch as much football as you can': Gerrard's message to Villa squad

Desserts have gone, sauces are banned and players have been told to watch as much football as possible… it has not taken long for Steven Gerrard to make his mark at Aston Villa, now his short reign faces another major test as he returns to Liverpool

  • Steven Gerrard has instilled a proper work ethic among his Aston Villa players
  • The methods are working and Villa have rediscovered their defensive solidity 
  • Gerrard has the squad watching videos of games and discussing how to improve
  • ‘You have to look for any kind of advantage or education you can get,’ he said

When John McGinn turned 27 in October, he arrived at the Aston Villa training ground with an array of cakes that were described as the best ever seen at the club.

The Scotland midfielder brought a sponge cake, a red velvet cake and a number of different cupcakes. Striker Ollie Watkins turns 26 at the end of the month and it would be a surprise if the occasion is marked in the same fashion.

Since Steven Gerrard succeeded Dean Smith as head coach on November 11, desserts and table sauces have disappeared from the canteen at Bodymoor Heath. Whether players have ketchup with meals or the odd cake is less important than the message Gerrard was trying to send — this is a place of work at all times. 

Steven Gerrard has instilled a proper work ethic among his players in his first month in charge

The days of John McGinn bringing in an array of cakes for his birthday are over under Gerrard 

These are early days but the methods are working. As one of Liverpool’s greatest captains prepares to return to Anfield as an opposing manager on Saturday, Villa have nine points from the first four games of his tenure, with Manchester City inflicting the only defeat on December 1.

Villa have rediscovered the solidity Smith instilled after the first lockdown and maintained throughout last season, conceding four goals in as many games after letting in 13 in Smith’s final five.

The influence of Jurgen Klopp is clear in Gerrard’s work: his 4-3-3 system, featuring flying full backs, wide forwards moving in off the flanks and emphasis on controlling the centre of the pitch, could be Liverpool in disguise.

Assistant head coach Michael Beale, who followed Gerrard from Liverpool to Rangers and now Villa, leads most of the work with Gerrard observing from the sidelines and stepping in periodically.

In his first month in the job, Gerrard is thought to have been particularly impressed by Marvelous Nakamba, Ezri Konsa, Watkins and McGinn. Tyrone Mings has retained the captaincy for the short term and was praised for his leadership qualities after Gerrard’s first game in charge.

Beale, 41, is a fascinating character. After his playing career was cut short by injury, he started coaching by teaching youngsters futsal — a reduced-size version of football featuring a smaller ball — in a church hall in Bromley, south London.

Gerrard and assistant Michael Beale (right) believe strongly in ‘coaching lieutenants’

This led to a role working with young players at Chelsea in 2002, where Beale helped develop Mason Mount, Declan Rice, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Dominic Solanke.

At Liverpool, he played a significant role in the progress of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones, and also spent time as assistant coach at Brazilian giants Sao Paulo.

His long-term ambition is a move into management.

Beale and Gerrard believe strongly in ‘unit coaches’ or ‘coaching lieutenants’, which means delegating a single member of staff to certain roles.

One coach is responsible for working closely with defenders, another with midfielders and another with forwards, with the manager overseeing everything.

‘If you can understand and manage the person, you can develop them as a player, and that improves the team,’ Beale told the Training Ground Guru podcast. 

Beale played a significant role in the progress of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones

‘Unit coaches can oversee the development of different players. It’s about having each coach looking at five or six players. They can have individual conversations with them before and after sessions, and during sessions. Then everyone is working more smartly.’

Aaron Danks, who was part of Smith’s coaching team, has been working closely with the forwards, with Gary McAllister keeping a close eye on the midfielders and technical coach Tom Culshaw with the defenders.

Hugely respected in the game, McAllister played with Gerrard at Liverpool and is an experienced sounding board for the manager. Two others inherited from the Smith regime, goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler and set-piece specialist Austin MacPhee, have retained their roles.

At Rangers, the forwards would start the week watching the goals from the weekend matches and taking tips from players like Jermain Defoe, who has more than 300 career goals, and the coaches organised a private social media account for players to check. This would feature clips from their own and other games, as well as other details of training sessions.

The app has been introduced at Villa as Gerrard seeks to focus minds. He said: ‘When they’re not here, we want them to watch as much football as they can. You have to look for any kind of advantage or education you can get.

Gerrard encourages his players to watch as much football as they can to gain an edge

‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many of our players want to watch the clips of their games back. They want to ask questions and evolve, which is what we want.’

Gerrard’s medium-term aim is to have the Under 23 side playing in the same way as the first team. Villa have high hopes for academy products like Cameron Archer and Jaden Philogene-Bidace.

Gerrard will try to play down the Liverpool connections this week. Yet, after an excellent first month in charge, a victory over the club that made him would feel like the icing on the cake — not that Gerrard would celebrate with one.

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