Fear is the Mind-Killer for Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa

The Good, Bad and Ugly of Nottingham Forest and Chelsea

By Phil Shaw

Things seem to be coming to a head for Aston Villa and Steven Gerrard, if only they could have swapped the performances in those two matches…

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The Good

There’s not much, but Douglas Luiz signing a surprise contract lifted the mood. Whatever you think of the Brazilian, he’s a financial asset to the club. The thought of him leaving for free, after Villa turned down £25 million from Arsenal would have added to the cloud over Villa Park.

Villan of the Week – Ashley Young

I’m open to suggestions, but nobody has performed like Young over the past few weeks. To think how many keyboard analysts complained about his signing at the time. He looks like the only squad member up for the fight.

The Bad and Ugly

Let’s just lump both together and take stock of the mess Villa are in.

Against Forest, Villa were pedestrian, lacklustre and desperate.
Against Chelsea, Villa were dynamic, careless and ultimately unlucky.

Something is very wrong, if these two performances come out of the same set of players within a matter of days.

If Villa, had put an ounce of the effort and creativity into the Forest match they showed against Chelsea, they’d have won easily. Instead of three points and a top-half berth, they’re sitting in a worse position than when Steven Gerrard took over from Dean Smith.

The question is what’s stopping them?

It looks like fear. to paraphrase Frank Herbert’s Dune novel:

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

Frank Herbert – Dune

The Villa players are scared to play their natural game.

Mistakes like Tyrone Mings’ vs Chelsea happen when players are scared.

Gareth Southgate was watching to add to the pressure Villa’s poor run has put on Mings and you see him head the ball completely wrong. Mings is fearful of never making another England Squad.

John McGinn is making awful decisions all over the pitch. Against Forest, he thought a diving header was a better option than simply smashing the ball into the goal.

In the Chelsea match, he dispossessed the defender and had the chance to square it to Danny Ings for a tap in, he tried to score from a difficult angle. He has the fear of being labelled a failure as captain.

The blame for this fear has to be laid at the door of the manager Steven Gerrard. Under him, it has been allowed to take root in the whole squad.

I’ve not called for Gerrard to be sacked, purely because I don’t want to admit that the last year of Aston Villa’s existence has been a waste of time.

If I was the CEO in charge of managerial recruitment, Villa may resemble Watford, so I understand there’s a need to not be knee-jerk.

It’s no secret I’d have sacked Dean Smith after losing by three goals away at Watford, yet Smith turned things around and won me over, before spectacularly reverting to that miserable Watford form albeit with a better squad prior to his dismissal.

Steven Gerrard is now in the firing line. If Smith hadn’t turned it around, my attitude would be to pull the trigger on Gerrard as well, but I’ve softened and have been looking to give him a chance to save himself.

To date, it hasn’t happened, despite favourable fixtures, and it looks like time is running out rapidly.

The reason it’s gone wrong looks to be a combination of tactics and personality.

Tactically, he’s shown himself to be a novice up against the rest of the Premier League, because in truth, that’s what he is. Dean Smith was also a work in progress, but Gerrard is even greener.

Winning the title in Scotland is an achievement that shouldn’t be diminished, but he had one of the two best squads in the league and the players knew it.

There was a swagger and a belief, that comes from inferior opposition not being able to punish you. In the Premier League, everything punishes you.

I’m also not putting much stock in the loss of Michael Beale to QPR. Beale is doing well at a Championship level but he’s not the missing link, as Villa were just as bad with him there as well.

Scott Parker and Daniel Farke, are two examples that show the gulf in class between Championship and Premier League, both were excellent in the second tier, before coming unstuck after promotion.

After the tactical naivety, there’s the personality.

Gerrard doesn’t look to be able to get the players over the fear they are showing on the pitch. Possibly, because he never experienced any as a player.

Gerrard was an elite player, and you can see by his reactions on the sideline, he has little or no empathy for any Villa player that can’t do what he did on the pitch.

It first surfaced away at Newcastle last season, when he sat sulking on the bench for the final ten minutes. It was a turgid display from Villa, but it’s Gerrard’s job to nurture the best out of these players.

Instead, the players are retreating into their shells on the pitch and the fear of upsetting the boss looks to be the prevailing issue.

I’m still hoping Gerrard can turn it around, but when the answer is him being someone he isn’t, then it doesn’t look possible.

The next few games will define an ugly period in Aston Villa’s season.


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