Football Features

Bounce for Gerrard’s Villa? How the Premier League’s three new managers fare today

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 18:00, 20 November 2021

Football is ultimately a results business. Managers, fairly or not, are judged solely by wins. If they’re not picking up three points consistently, a departure is the likely outcome

Already this season we’ve seen no fewer than five head coaches shown the exit door. Xisco Muñoz (Watford) was the first to be given his marching orders before Steve Bruce (Newcastle United) and Nuno Espírito Santo (Tottenham) left their respective positions. In the span of two days, Daniel Farke (Norwich City) and Dean Smith (Aston Villa) were sacked.

Norwich, Villa and Newcastle all of whom came into the Premier League’s 12th matchday in the bottom five have since appointed three Englishmen (the aforementioned Smith, Rangers’ championship-winner Steven Gerrard and Eddie Howe), all three of them interestingly taking charge of their opening games this weekend. So, how did they fare?

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Aston Villa 2-0 Brighton (Steven Gerrard)

The consensus among observers was that Aston Villa were grossly underperforming; their squad wasn’t befitting of the bottom-five position Gerrard found them in. Though it goes without saying losing an influential figure as Jack Grealish is massive, the club nevertheless invested well this summer and possesses a good enough side that should at the very worst be languishing in mid-table. Gerrard’s work across the border at Rangers was eye opening and earned him this gig.

Under his leadership, The Gers ended Celtic’s iron grip on the Scottish Premiership as well as going an entire league campaign (2020/21) unbeaten. Facing an exciting Brighton & Hove Albion side, the former Liverpool captain deployed a 4-3-3 with fellow Reds alumni Danny Ings leading the line and flanked by Ollie Watkins and Emiliano Buendía, the latter, an exciting pre-season acquisition from Norwich but yet to pull up any trees at Villa Park.

Gerrard’s first 45 minutes as a Premier League coach was somewhat uneventful. They neither conceded nor scored. In fact, they were second-best throughout as Brighton bossed possession (60.2%) while edging out when it came to shots on target (1-2). It seemed destined to be an unmemorable debut but everything changed in the final ten minutes. Villa came alive following key substitutions by Gerrard, which included bringing on the veteran Ashley Young, for Buendia, and the Serie A winner created Watkins opener in the 84th minute.

And they were not done. Skipper Tyrone Mings doubled their lead four minutes later to end the club’s five-game losing streak — which lifted them into 15th place and four points above the relegation places — and ensured Gerrard becoming only the third permanent Villa manager to win their first Premier League game for the club after John Gregory (vs Liverpool) in February 1998 and Gerard Houllier (vs Wolves) in September 2010.

Understandably there was a mixture of “excitement and relief” for the Villa boss post-match. “We had to suffer, we had to get bodies on the line, we had to get through difficult moments and that gives you the chance to still go and win the game at the end. I’m really proud of the players, a lot of positive stuff to take from the game,” he told Sky Sports. “Now the challenge for us is can we go and back it up next week.”

A week from today is a meeting at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace who are of course managed by Gerrard’s old midfield rival, Patrick Vieira.

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Newcastle 3-3 Brentford (Eddie Howe)

Once the long-awaited Saudi takeover of Newcastle United went through Steve Bruce knew he was on borrowed time. Attention immediately focused on his successor. Unai Emery, Paulo Fonseca and even Erik ten Hag were linked with the job. However, the Magpies current plight (despite their newfound riches) meant there weren’t that many hurrying for the hot seat. Coming off the recent international break Newcastle found themselves second from bottom and without a single win.

The powers-that-be opted for someone with relegation fighting experience albeit it didn’t go so well last time out. Eddie Howe enjoyed five consecutive Premier League seasons with Bournemouth, averaging a top 14 finish, before their demotion in 2020. Having signed a contract until June 2024, there’s a golden opportunity that awaits him and his new team. They couldn’t have asked for a more tricky first game together as newcomers Brentford have shown they’re no pushovers.

That was evident in the opening half at St James’ Park, even though it was Howe’s side that broke the deadlock. Jamaal Lascelles, someone previous Newcastle coaches relied on and for very good reason, slotted home a 10th-minute opener.

But there was no time to celebrate, as seconds later Ivan Toney drew the game level. From this moment, the Bees took command and just after the half-hour mark they were in front through Rico Henry’s effort. By now it was becoming clear this game was going to be an end-to-end affair and six minutes from the break the previously maligned Joelinton got his name on the scoresheet.

That stalemate only lasted 16 minutes into the second half as Lascelles unfortunately put the ball into his own net. Heads might have fallen on another occasion, but not today as the club’s ‘most valuable player’ this season Allan Saint-Maximin ensured a point at least for Howe on his debut as he seeks to rebuild this Newcastle side in his image. This hardfought draw could be the start of something special but following simultaneous events in East Anglia, they end this weekend rock bottom.

Norwich 2-1 Southampton (Dean Smith)

Norwich are seemingly in that Fulham space, where they are too good for the Championship but not quite Premier League quality. After winning automatic promotion in 2018/19 (1st) they were sent back to England’s second division (20th) before coming straight back up (1st). Heading into this weekend’s fixtures they were rock bottom after saying goodbye to Farke who has been with them since 2017. With more than 25 games remaining this season and the gap to safety being five points after the opening 11 rounds, it would be foolish to write off the Canaries.

Saying that, new boss Smith has his work cut out for him, especially as he was given the boot after struggling at Villa post-Grealish. And with Norwich possessing the league’s poorest attack, you start to understand why many felt he took on an impossible job. Fate works in mysterious ways as Smith’s first outing was against Southampton, the very same team he faced before leaving his most recent managerial role, thus making him the first manager to coach successive Premier League games against the same team.

Praying for a good start at his new Carrow Road home, today’s game was anything but as Che Adams put the visitors into an early lead. Barely five minutes had been played when the 25-year-old forward, who played an instrumental role in Scotland’s wins over Moldova and Denmark during the international break, converted an Adam Armstrong pass for his second league goal of the season. Just when he was starting to get flashbacks, Smith’s men responded swiftly when talismanic cult hero Teemu Pukki equalised three minutes later. It was a second goal in as many games for the Finnish marksman who famously became a Fantasy Football star after netting six goals across his opening five Premier League appearances two seasons ago.

This resilient spirit, coming back after falling behind, galvanised Norwich with Smith looking on. Steve Clarke too as it was another Scottish pair who combined to alter the scoreline. With the game heading towards a conclusion Grant Hanley, via a Billy Gilmour cross, headed the hosts in front. It was his first Premier League goal since December 2011. By seeing out the game, Norwich leave 20th position but move up one place; that said, momentum is certainly on their side as they look forward to a date with Wolves (6th) before a relegation six-pointer in Newcastle’s backyard on November 30.

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