Now that the dust has somewhat settled after the loss to Norwich City that saw Rafa Benitez get the sack, Everton must look to get on the right foot against Aston Villa. The Villains have seen their fair share of recent poor form and bad fortune too, although new boss Steven Gerrard is very much safe and sound with his new club.
As Villa looks to keep building, Everton need to find their first victory since their 2-1 victory against Arsenal. This team sits in 16th position currently, just six points out of the relegation territory and a victory against this 13th positioned Aston Villa side would do wonders for the confidence and safety regarding the unthinkable relegation as well.
RBM: Firstly, what is the mood around Villa Park and amongst supporters right now as Aston Villa find themselves mired in a winless drought dating back to mid-December?
I would say hopeful, with a tinge of disappointment. It has been a run of tough games and really only one just terrible performance (Brentford). Losses to Chelsea and Manchester United (in the FA Cup) — both of which came with some positive performances at times, and a draw to ManU where we gifted them two goals then fought back in the latter half of the second half to earn a point. Brentford was bad, no hiding that fact. Now Villa fans are expecting the next run to be where points come from.
RBM: Just over two months into the new boss’s tenure, what are the feelings regarding Steven Gerrard and what he is trying to build at this club relative to what Dean Smith had been?
I love Dean Smith. You will never hear me say a bad word about him. He did very well at Villa, he met every objective he was given. And he got a raw deal this summer which included a stop & start preseason, covid, injuries etc.
But Gerrard has a draw from the players that most managers will never have. He has said all the right things coming in and downplayed the Liverpool stuff despite everyone in the media continually wanting to bring it up. He has come in with a system and has played around trying to make things work. The midfield play has improved and become a little more consistent. He has clearly helped the likes of John McGinn and Jacob Ramsey and has drawn Philippe Coutinho into the club when no other manager could have. The aim is to push and push now, the board has backed him and the fans are behind him... the question remains if the performance on the pitch will live up to the standards.
RBM: What has been troubling this side all season long that they’ve struggled to play consistently with both Dean Smith and now Steven Gerrard? What must be remedied for this Aston Villa outfit to do so?
The obvious answer is losing Jack Grealish. He was the captain, best player, offensive focal point, and heartbeat of the club. Dean Smith never found his best formation or best XI this year. The players were playing poorly — especially in the midfield. Villa were just getting beat up in the middle and couldn’t control games.
Trying to play Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings in the same side didn’t work for Dean Smith and hasn’t worked for Gerrard. But since Gerrard came in the midfield has (mostly) played better, especially Marvelous Nakamba in the defensive midfield role. He is now out for a few months and the midfield is out of balance a bit with Luiz playing in that role. That is the key for me for the rest of the season. If Luiz can do that role, or if someone comes in and succeeds, then this team can move up the table.
RBM: With so many new names purchased over the summer, and again brought in during the early stages of this winter window, who must step up for this Aston Villa side to really start challenging week in and week out
The summer transfer grades are incomplete for me. Emi Buendia has been very good the last couple of matches and is beginning to live up to the promise he had coming in from Norwich. Ings has been a disappointment. He has had a few good finishes of course, but I think the system changing so much has hurt him.
Leon Bailey has been injured in between brilliant runs as a sub. I think the three of them (who I consider our big signings from the summer) have only been on the field together for about an hour. Hopefully that changes in the second half.
Lucas Digne and Coutinho are big moves this winter and I look forward to watching them both. Digne slots right in as an improvement over Matty Targett. If Coutinho looks like he did for the end of the ManU game then that move could change Villa’s season.
To answer your actual question though, Gerrard has to figure out the striker situation — Ings or Watkins, both isn’t working. Luiz, or future DM, need to improve the protection of the back four.
RBM: How do you expect Villa to set up on Saturday, and who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
4-3-2-1 — two narrow #10s under the striker. Width will come from full backs and midfielders will (hopefully) cover the space they leave.
Martinez, Cash, Konsa (came off injured last match so Hause, if he is still hurt), Mings, Digne, Luiz, McGinn, Ramsey, Coutinho, Buendia, Watkins.
This is my guess. If Coutinho is still short of full fitness, I would expect Watkins to start on the wing and Ings up top.... as much as I don’t want that.
Emi Buendia is the man pulling the strings right now. If he starts next to Coutinho it will be interesting to see how that works.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
I’ll say 1-2 to Villa!
Our thanks to Phil for his time.