It’s been five years since My Old Man Said last ran the ‘What We Learned’ column on site. Maybe that’s how long it takes to replace the original writer, Adam Keeble? As MOMS focuses on getting the site back up and running to a fuller capacity, we welcome Nick Price-Thompson, who takes over to reboot the popular weekly column.
By Nick Price-Thompson
Three things we learned in the first week of 2022/23
It was a chastening opening weekend for Villa fans, as the now infamous hype train came to a grinding halt before it had reached the very first station.
Playing newly promoted teams on day one is never easy, see Watford in 2021/22, but that does not mean this expensively assembled list of eleven individuals should be making it easier.
But it is only one game, we hope.
What we learnt…
1. Villa’s midfield problems are far from being solved.
Despite signing a talented, combative, young French midfielder (have we been here before?) the midfield strife is still rife.
McGinn runs around a lot, but he could end up being even more headless with the armband on? And any one of Ramsey, Luiz, Sanson, seems to leave us short of the quality and guile we need to manage games and transition the team from defence to attack and, crucially, back the other way.
It is a worrying early season moment, because we are led to believe that the transfer business is done. Which places a huge burden on Kamara, considering he is only one Premier league game into his fledging career. Will Gerrard consider a former favourite of his, the now seemingly forgotten Marvelous Nakamba? With a two-man pivot, we might see Emi Buendia back in the starting ranks as part of a four-way attack in a 4-2-3-1.
Gerrard made a big point of saying Kamara can play in lots of different midfield and defensive roles and combinations. It remains to be seen if this would be put into practice to play two deeper sitters, or even pushing Karmara up a little to play as an ‘eight’.
Nakamba hasn’t played a minute in pre-season and potentially might not be fully up to speed. Does Gerrard still have him in his plans, or am I clutching at straws here?
What is certain is Villa shouldn’t be in this position with the midfield. It was a problem throughout our promotion push, and our first years back in the big time. It should have been solved. You can only assume that key targets have constantly slipped through the club’s grasp – like Bissouma to Spurs, for example.
2. More to Mings situation than first thought
Like many, the captaincy decision didn’t really come as a huge surprise, given what Gerrard said about it when he first came in the door. What was a surprise was to suddenly see the icy cold benching of one of Villa’s better players and the subsequent questions being handled by the Villa boss in a very irritable fashion.
Villa’s manager was quick to move the debate away from defensive frailties after the Bournemouth defeat, and then went a step further when under questioning from media in the post-game.
“When Tyrone is back at his best and looks me in the eye and shows me he’s ready to play, he’ll get opportunities”.
In just a few days, we have gone from most fans being content with the decision, supportive of the manager, to being divided over the decision and over the captaincy.
The question is, was it needed? Do we have a better captain and better first eleven because of it? Has Gerrard picked the right fight to have at this moment?
He is clearly seeking to stamp authority on an underperforming squad, which is welcome. It was pleasing to see his handling of the Chukwuemeka situation over the summer – no contract signy, no likey.
But this Mings situation feels unsettling all of a sudden, and a story that will certainly run through the next couple of weeks, where a result and performance at home against a poor Everton side will be absolutely vital, if the team really want to settle down supporters and switch the focus to getting the required points to being the top half by the time the World Cup arrives.
Which brings us to…
3. A Lack of Clear Identity
Pre-season and the season opener demonstrated that Gerrard still does not know what his best XI is, both in terms of shape and personnel. This is probably the most worrying issue right now, and it is on him. He has the tools, by his own admission.
With increased squad depth, Gerrard has sought to create a team where nobody can be complacent about keeping their shirt. Genuine competition is good, but there should still be a clear seven or even eight players that you think ‘yep, they are in’. Right now it feels like the two full-backs, Martinez, and possibly Kamara, are the only names he has written down ready for the Everton game.
That issue is then further exacerbated by the fact we are seemingly lacking a plan on the pitch that the players are executing or are comfortable with.
What is the ‘Gerrard way’?
Under Dean Smith, Villa initially played attacking ‘gung-ho football’, which was exciting at times, but occasionally gave up needless points. Then Smith and his coaching team during the lockdown period made an effort to strike more of a defensive balance, which ultimately saved the team from relegation and improved fortunes the following season with 15 clean sheets helping mid-table respectability.
Then when the big name signings came in to replace Jack Grealish and the injuries mounted up, Smith lost his way.
In two performances against Leeds and Southampton last season, you got a glimpse into where Gerrard possibly wants to go with his Villa team, but when the opposition is organised or a level above, his team has struggled tactically.
Soon, Gerrard will be a year in the job. If he is unable to stamp his mark on a team by then, it’s difficult to see how Villa improve from last season to break into the top eight.
Ticket prices are up, off field plans are starting to take shape and expectations are growing higher. So, the next few weeks on the pitch are really important for the Villa boss to establish the semblance of a path to shake off the stigma of Villa’s current record of only winning twice in their last 12 Premier League games.
Gerrard spoke of having a “no excuse culture” at Villa and that begins with him.