Despite their expensive new signings, Ollie Watkins could still be the key to filling the void left by Jack Grealish at Aston Villa.
Villa Park was an expectant place on Saturday afternoon. For the biggest club in the Midlands, former European champions and a Premier League original, nothing short of victory is often demanded. However their new manager, Steven Gerrard, walked into a problem.
It was the same problem which ultimately brought the former Liverpool captain down from Rangers after the dismissal of Dean Smith a couple of weeks ago. Gerrard’s name carries more weight than Smith’s, partially because of the way he took to management in his maiden role but mainly because of his playing exploits.
Smith faced doubts over his ability to turn things around after five successive defeats that ultimately saw the end of his reign, after mounting pressure from some sections of the Villa fandom and media. Others said that Smith deserved more loyalty after a difficult spell, with him getting Villa back up from the Championship and creating a stable base from which to build.
But Gerrard represented hope and fresh ideas. Something needed to change after the post-Jack Grealish era turned sour so quickly after he, their linchpin, joined Manchester City for £100m in the summer. The club were open and honest in their desire to keep him and admittance that they couldn’t. Despite spending a lot of money to replace him, his absence was felt hard by Smith, under whom he’d developed into a superstar.
Emiliano Buendia, signed from Norwich City, was the closest they came to a direct replacement as a playmaker but he’s struggled to match Grealish’s creative output. Winger Leon Bailey and striker Danny Ings also arrived.
Injury cost Smith the chance to start all three together for Aston Villa but the biggest difficulty he faced was settling on a system which both mitigated the lack of Grealish and allowed other players, not only the new signings but others such as last season’s top scorer Ollie Watkins, to thrive. With Ings in the side, playing with two strikers seemed a logical starting point but balancing that with Buendia and Bailey, in particular, became difficult.
Watkins was converted from a wide player into a striker by Smith when they were together at Brentford but a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the England man in his former role, wasn’t working either. Gerrard’s home bow ended in success. The run of defeats was halted and he was afforded a couple of late moments of ecstasy in a 2-0 victory over Brighton. It was far from wholly convincing but remained a good start against a good side. Even better was the fact that Watkins got on the scoresheet.
There is evidence to suggest Smith’s sacking was harsh, just 11 games into a new era after such tactical upheaval. But Villa’s poor form has been a year-long worry, as had Smith’s ability to find the right blend without Grealish. Even before he departed for the Etihad Stadium, Villa won just three games without the 26-year-old, as he dealt with a shin problem last season. Gerrard needs to find the solution to that issue before he can win everybody at Astone Villa over and Ollie Watkins might just hold the key to the direction in which his early reign goes.
Gerrard often used a 4-3-3 system at Rangers and this could be a good starting point when it comes to tackling Villa’s tactical quandary. Playing wide of a three in attack is completely different to wide in a trio in behind a lone striker, with an attacking midfielder alongside. Positionally, it is much deeper, with less freedom and space ti run into; Watkins needs to be able to cut inside into the box if he isn’t going to play centrally to begin with, and this is a system that could also suit Bailey or Buendia, when fit.
Something Grealish brought to the Villa side that hasn’t fully been appreciated since is versatility. He thrived from the left of midfield, as he has done for England, while also playing as a number 10, but he was also fantastic in a deeper midfield number 8 role, controlling games from there. Villa have lacked that control since and have proven too easy to play against for long periods this season; a system change could add more fluidity in attack, but also more steel and authority in the middle.
The form of Ollie Watkins has been a byproduct of the struggles Aston Villa have faced to replace Grealish this season. In 10 league games, he has only scored three goals, because his role hasn’t been settled. Gerrard has batted away questions over his desire to manage Liverpool in the future and Villa harbour ambitions of a return to European football, but more immediately, continuing to pull away from the relegation zone is imperative, and Watkins needs to be firing for that to happen.
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