When Steven Gerrard arrived at Aston Villa in November, they were looking firmly over their shoulder. The relegation zone, an unthinkable abode at the start of the season, lurked ominously to drag them in.
Villa had stepped in quicksand, slipping from eighth to 17th in space of just five games in 42 days. Dean Smith doesn’t need telling how much can change in six weeks, on top of the world after Villa’s first win at Old Trafford since 2009 to a sacking which had only weeks before looked impossible.
Now, Villa are only looking up the table. Four wins in six under Gerrard, whose appointment understandably prompted a mixed reaction given Smith’s relationship with Villa and Gerrard’s record with only one club, has them in the top 10 and eyeing up European spots.
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It’s still early days, but the mood shift is tangible. Gerrard has seen a reaction in several of Villa’s squad – Marvelous Nakamba, John McGinn, Tyrone Mings and Matt Targett to name a few – but full-back Matty Cash hasn’t necessarily needed it.
The 24-year-old has been among Villa’s most consistent players all season, after a solid debut Premier League campaign in 2020/21.
Given Villa have tightened up at the back, the all-action right-back is perhaps the perfect man to ask about Gerrard’s tactical shifts.
“Defensively, the first job for me is to defend my goal, and to be strong and aggressive with it,” he tells Sky Sports, ahead of Villa’s home clash with Chelsea on Boxing Day, live on Sky Sports. “That’s what he told me.
“But going forward as well we want to have a lot of possession on the ball, create as many chances as we can because with the forward players we have we can be very dangerous. As a full-back I want to get in high attacking positions, like a winger, and get as many crosses in and assists as I can, and goals too.
“So far we’ve done really well, and hopefully the more we train with him and get used to each other and the formation, we can have more success.
“The atmosphere around the place is really good and that has come from getting results. We’ve gone out there, enjoyed our football, and to be hard to beat, that’s what [Gerrard] has implemented, being aggressive with it.”
Becoming hard to beat was a good start. Free-scoring Manchester City enjoyed their first half at Villa Park but suffered in the second, while Liverpool could only get past Gerrard’s side with a debatable penalty.
The statistics point to a more conservative approach, but fans need not worry about entertainment; the intensity and energy has been clear. And after all, for a team in Villa’s current position, results must outweigh theatrical value.
Their threat in front of goal hasn’t changed too much; in Premier League ranking, Villa were 14th for xG under Smith, and have been 14th since Gerrard took over.
The drastic change has been in defence. Villa have jumped six places for xG against, five places for shots against in the box, 12 places for shots against outside the box, and 13 places for goals conceded. Their xG on target conceded has also improved by nine places.
Cash, who is now a full Poland international, says: “We’ve definitely got a different way [of playing now], maybe getting tighter together and shifting as a team, which makes it really hard for other teams against us. So people are seeing what we’re about.
“He’s brought a lot really, a lot of intensity in training, energy to our play, we’ve got a style of play, attacking football. So a lot of change, and it has really benefited us.”
He’s a big part of that task, given full-backs cover more of the length of the pitch than any other player.
But without the ball, Villa’s back line is flatter and narrower. Gone are any gaping holes in the final third and the result has been just five goals conceded in six games, three of which were against the Premier League’s two best teams.
But Cash can go both ways. Though his main strength is in defending, he is arguably more important for Villa in the opposition half. Of all Premier League defenders, he’s in the top six for crosses and passes into the final third.
Sky Sports’ Gary Neville’s recent praise of Liverpool full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson didn’t go unnoticed by Cash, who insists the role of a full-back is more important now than ever, particularly in a creative sense.
“I heard Gary Neville say the other day that a full-back now can be one of your most creative players, and it’s so true. We see Trent and Robbo bombing down the wing and getting crosses in. I think Trent must get about 20 crosses in per game!
“In the formation we’re playing that’s the sort of road we want to go down. It gives us an extra option when we have a full-back overlapping.
“I work hard every day on my end product, getting into those positions. I watch the videos and analysis of my games to go over where I can improve.
“It’s really hard work, to be fair. You’ve got to sprint up and down loads, and being a creative full-back you’ve got to join the play going forward but also do your job defensively.
“At the end of the day, you’re judged on your defending as well. If you get caught out of position and they score from it, it’s your fault. You’ve got to find the balance of when to go and when not to. It’s high demand, but that’s what you train for, and I’m loving it really. I’m all here for it.”
Villa host Chelsea on Boxing Day looking to further cement a place in the top half having finished just outside last season.
But for a club of Villa’s side, European football is the aim.
“Everybody knows the ambition Villa have got. The club want to be right up there in the European spots, but we need to win games to be there. I think we’ve built a good platform to progress, we’re in the top 10 and we’re on the up having won some games; it’s a cliché but we need to focus on every game.
“When you’re winning games the environment is always good, that’s just how it is. But it’s also nice to be winning games and playing really well.
“The atmosphere around the place is really good and that has come from getting results. We’ve gone out there, enjoyed our football, and to be hard to beat, that’s what [Gerrard] has implemented, being aggressive with it.
“When we’ve got the ball, we enjoy it, and we try to play with a smile on our faces.”
Watch Aston Villa vs Chelsea live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Boxing Dayl; kick-off 5.30pm