Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa in-tray includes fixing slow starts and unlocking Emi Buendia

Steven Gerrard is an ambitious manager and will believe with enough time he can get Aston Villa challenging for Europe. 

But with Dean Smith being axed with Villa 16th in the Premier League, Gerrard needs some quick fixes to trigger an upshot in form.

Slow starts are really hurting the Midlands side, while Gerrard will have plenty of thoughts on how to fix such an ineffective midfield unit struggling without the departed Jack Grealish. 

Steven Gerrard has plenty to fix at Villa Park but he inherits a talented squad of internationals

Aston Villa need a new lease of life having won just three of their opening 11 league matches

Aston Villa need a new lease of life having won just three of their opening 11 league matches

‘Aston Villa is a club with a rich history and tradition in English football and I am immensely proud to become its new head coach,’ Gerrard said after being appointed.

‘In my conversations with Nassef (Sawiris), Wes (Edens) and the rest of the Board, it was apparent how ambitious their plans are for the club and I am looking forward to helping them achieve their aims.

‘I would like to express my sincere gratitude to everybody associated with Glasgow Rangers for giving me the opportunity to manage such an iconic football club. 

‘Helping them secure a record-breaking 55th league title will always hold a special place in my heart. I would like to wish the players, staff and supporters the very best for the future.’

He showed at Rangers, alongside Gary McAllister, that he can coach players and make them better and that should be music to the ears of Aston Villa supporters. 

Summer signings are yet to hit the heights their lofty price tags suggested, captain Tyrone Mings has lost his way this season and even found himself dropped recently, while Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins are struggling to co-exist in attack.

Sportsmail looks at the key issues Gerrard needs to fix at Villa Park to keep this talented Villa side clear of the relegation zone. 

Find a way to maximise Watkins-Ings 

Danny Ings arrived as part of Operation: Life After Grealish and has so far scored three goals and had two assists. 

It’s been a bit more subdued than what fans had hoped for. 

His first Villa goal came on the opening day away at Watford with a consolation penalty in the final seconds of what proved a 3-2 defeat.

The stunning bicycle kick against Newcastle led to a 2-0 win but since then it’s been a rough ride for the former Southampton striker. 

Part of the issue has surrounded the reduced efficiency when in a team with Ollie Watkins. The same goes for Watkins, he struggles more with Ings than without him.

Both deserve to play and that was certainly the opinion of Dean Smith and it was why he looked to shoehorn them both into a 3-5-2 formation.  

Danny Ings has managed three goals and two assists for Villa so far

Ollie Watkins has not looked comfortable in the role he has been asked to play of late

Danny Ings (left) and Ollie Watkins (right) are struggling to co-exist and both thrive in a 3-5-2

Ultimately that has failed to bear fruit and knowing Gerrard as many do following three years at Rangers, he won’t persist with a back three. 

The way out of this dilemma could well be to use Watkins as a wide forward in a 4-3-3 system. It was one Gerrard leaned on a lot during his time in Glasgow and it would allow Watkins to avoid being swallowed up by centre backs. 

Ings is adept at playing the central striker role and he will spearhead this attack but all is not lost for Watkins. 

The 25-year-old left Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp raving last season following Villa’s big 7-2 win and he will no doubt win Gerrard over with his attitude and his work-rate.

Watkins has managed the second most off-the-ball runs in the league so far this season per 90 minutes and that should allow him to thrive in wide areas in a more fluid role. 

Finding a solution to the Ings-Watkins conundrum should immediately bring positives both in attacking phases of play and in transition.  

Bring Tyrone Mings back to form

It was quite a statement when Smith dropped Mings, his captain and his on-pitch leader, from his line-up to face West Ham.

Truth be told, it was not a total shock. 

Villa, who kept 15 clean sheets last season, have the third-worst defensive record in the Premier League and Mings must take responsibility as the captain.

Twenty goals conceded in the opening 11 league games is incredibly poor – only Norwich and Newcastle have shipped more. 

Tyrone Mings' form has dropped off and as captain of the side it is vital Gerrard galvanises him

Tyrone Mings’ form has dropped off and as captain of the side it is vital Gerrard galvanises him

ASTON VILLA’S UPCOMING FIXTURES 

November 20: Brighton (H)

November 27: Crystal Palace (A)

December 1: Man City (H)

December 5: Leicester (H) 

December 11: Liverpool (A)

December 14: Norwich (A)

England boss Gareth Southgate has stuck by Mings by calling him up to his latest squad, as he did for Manchester United winger Jadon Sancho previously, but getting a tune out of Mings is key for Gerrard. 

Connor Goldson really elevated his game working with Gerrard and McAllister at Rangers and, given Mings is a boyhood Liverpool fan, he should find himself hanging on Gerrard’s every word. 

‘It’s no time for sulking, get on with it,’ Jamie Redknapp said after Mings was dropped. ‘Sometimes players have too much power.’ 

Mings has proven himself time and time again at Villa: getting them promoted to the Premier League, helping them stay up, establish himself as part of the furniture with England and now the honour of being club captain. 

But he hasn’t been up to his usual standards and that is a problem as he sets the tone for those around him. 

Get Mings to sing and Gerrard will find he will get a tune out of the entire defence. 

Get to root of midfield woe

When Ben White appeared to have the freedom of north London to bulldoze his way through Villa’s midfield, it summed up just how much of a problem area it had become.

White went through with ease, swatting any half-hearted challenges off and Villa paid, losing convincingly against Arsenal.  

It has become way too easy to break through Villa in the middle of the park and as one of the Premier League’s finest ever midfielders it is an area Gerrard understands better than most. 

Gerrard needs to make his new team much more physical because right now there are too many examples of midfielders getting bullied.

Opposition players like Ben White are finding it way to easy to slice Villa's midfield open

Opposition players like Ben White are finding it way to easy to slice Villa’s midfield open

John McGinn is a talented player and Douglas Luiz is a Brazil international but what Villa find themselves lacking is an enforcer that can really stamp authority on a game.

Marvelous Nakamba has not proved to be the answer and Jacob Ramsey is only 20 and still raw, learning his craft. 

An addition or two in January is likely the solution to the midfield but the players already there between now and the window need to be set up in a way which provides much more protection. 

Another worrying aspect of the midfield is that they cannot dominate matches. 

Villa have become used to being down on passing stats and possession stats but eventually chasing opponents – and often shadows – is taking it’s toll in opening them up, making them vulnerable. Starting with Brighton, that has to change.  

Unlock Emi Buendia

Arriving as a £40million club record signing, Emiliano Buendia has had something akin to a nightmare start at Villa, certainly not how he would have envisaged his mega-money move from Norwich.

Buendia, excellent for Norwich in the Championship, has just one goal and one assist from nine league games so far.

Part of the process in replacing Grealish was spreading the creativity around and Buendia’s brilliance was captured most when he broke between the lines as the creative force in that promoted Norwich team.

In fairness to Buendia he was suffering in a central role, which was largely his in a bid to squeeze Ings and Watkins in together. 

Buendia has looked lightweight and may suit a formation switch that can allow him to operate in a wider role where he can face up a defender.

Villa's record signing, Emi Buendia, may well benefit most if their is a change in formation

Villa’s record signing, Emi Buendia, may well benefit most if their is a change in formation

Fitness has been a problem too with Buendia held back by an annoying hip issue at the start of the season. 

For hope of a fresh start under a new manager, Buendia should look at how Gerrard managed someone like Joe Aribo at Rangers. 

Operating off the right of a 4-3-3 attack, Aribo looked a constant pest for defenders and also looked a real goal threat. 

With Leon Bailey in and out of the side, Buendia needs to step up, build a relationship with Ings for a one-two punch in midfield and attack and also take accountability for his displays.

The optics were bad for the Argentine when, after he was sacrificed in the second half against West Ham when Ezri Konsa was shown a red card, he went straight down the tunnel in a huff before eventually going back to the bench.

One thing Gerrard won’t accept is a prima donna. 

Change a losing mentality

Score first against Villa this season and more often than not it is job done. 

Villa have managed to gain just one point from games in which they went 1-0 down. They only have a 1-1 draw at home to Brentford in which they showed the resolve to come back.

Gerrard had a brilliant mentality and resolve as a player with Liverpool and it is that kind of spirit that he needs to pass onto this squad that is seriously low on confidence. 

Going 1-0 down heads appear to drop and Villa look like they don’t believe they are going to come back. 

With Brighton and Crystal Palace as their next two games, Gerrard will need to immediately see the kind of fight he demanded from team-mates as a captain at Liverpool. 

He won’t tolerate any sulking, any pity being shared round. 

Villa look defeated when they go 1-0 down but Gerrard has a spirit that will give them belief

Villa look defeated when they go 1-0 down but Gerrard has a spirit that will give them belief

Ask any of the players at Rangers what kind of spirit they had had instilled in them by Gerrard for when they went behind and they will tell you they never felt beaten.

This season alone Rangers managed to come from behind on five occasions to take 13 points from losing positions.

Away at St Johnstone and away at St Mirren, Rangers turned early 1-0 deficits into 2-1 wins.

First Hibernian and then Aberdeen thought they had upset the champions at Ibrox only for Rangers to defeat 10-man Hibs 2-1 and come back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Aberdeen. 

Most recent of all, away to Motherwell, Rangers fell 1-0 behind before putting on the afterburners and running out 6-1 winners.  

So don’t start feeling sorry for yourselves as players because they will quickly learn a Gerrard side never gives up. 

Get rid of the slow starts 

This is a real problem that needs to be among the first things Gerrard sorts. 

The first 15 minutes in games for this side have been so damaging and, as mentioned earlier, once Villa go behind they rarely come back. 

Villa have scored just one goal in this period but have conceded a total of five, a league-worst this season.

Southampton, who beat them last Friday with a goal in the third minute, have only conceded twice in the first 15 minutes. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea are the only team in the league to have a total shutout in that first quarter. 

Gerrard will need his players to give themselves a chance in games and to stop giving opponents a head start.

Aston Villa have a league-worst five goals conceded in the opening 15 minutes of matches

Aston Villa have a league-worst five goals conceded in the opening 15 minutes of matches

In the game that Mings was dropped for, the visit of West Ham, it took Ben Johnson just seven minutes to net, silencing Villa Park – they had seen this movie before. 

Only Burnley (3.27), Manchester United (2.65) and Norwich (2.58) have a worse xG goals against in the first 15 minutes of games than Villa (2.49) this season.

Villa have a talented squad but have a combined total of 2.5 expected goals against from the opening 15 minutes of their 11 league games. 

That is asking for trouble and Gerrard will no doubt be determined to set them up as harder to beat from that first whistle. 

Gerrard has the international break to get some basic ideas across before imparting more and more of his philosophy in the weeks and months to come.

Key to those early messages: stop shooting yourself in the foot. 

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