Steven Gerrard didn’t want Aston Villa’s trip to Liverpool on Saturday to be about him, but understood why the narrative was so obvious.
“I really respect and understand the noise around the game for obvious reasons because I’m going back to a club where I spent many years,” Gerrard had said at his press conference on Friday.
“It brings a smile to my face for a couple of reasons. One because I’ve obviously got a good relationship with a lot of people at the club, I had a fantastic time there, a really good journey.
“I’m a local boy and it was the team I supported growing up and I always will support that team. Of course I will.
“But at the same time it brings a smile to my face because I’ve got the opportunity to go there and compete against a good team with a good manager with the opportunity to try and win the game and that’s my only main focus.
“I think the noise is for other people to get excited about. For me, it’s about preparing the team in the best way I can to try and get a positive result for Aston Villa and that’s the way I will be.”
As it comes, the way Gerrard set up Villa to try and take a positive result was with their backs to the walls, s***housing at every opportunity and mastering the dark arts of football.
Villa were happy to let their hosts have the lion’s share of possession – Gerrard admitted post-game this was almost an inevitability – and after a first half spent conceding half-chances here and there, Mohamed Salah stepped his game up , broke free from the shackles of Tyrone Mings and Matt Targett and eventually scored the spot kick that would win the game.
Gerrard, only about one month into the job at Villa Park, would have been both brave and stupid if he were to try set his side up to compete on the ball, but his extreme tactics off it weren’t just ones of pragmatism and showed a dedication to winding the big boys up.
Villa didn’t need to time waste in the first half. They didn’t need to leave one in on every challenge they made. They didn’t need to play Ashley Young. But that’s how Gerrard saw best to try and get a result – by getting under Liverpool’s skin.
In the end, that wasn’t enough as despite their defensive resilience, Villa simply didn’t create enough on the rare occasions where they did have the ball. The closest they came to a goal was when Alisson felled Danny Ings in the penalty area with ten minutes remaining.
The problem with this approach is it relies on luck a little more than the average tactic. But no one was expecting Villa to head back to the second city with anything anyway, and Gerrard has a long time to figure out the perfect balance to his streetwise setup before he inevitably takes the reins at Anfield.