Aston Villa frustrated going forward in Brentford defeat

Mads Roerslev celebrates Brentford's winner against Aston Villa
Mads Roerslev celebrates Brentford's winner against Aston Villa / Justin Setterfield/GettyImages

Steven Gerrard's confident presentation as Aston Villa manager was laced with talk of the 'identity and philosophy' he wanted to instil at the West Midlands giant.

However, above possession and pressing, the former England captain was keen to stress the first area that emphatically needed work; defence.

When Gerrard purposefully strode into Villa Park, the claret and blues he inherited from Dean Smith were 16th in the table after shipping 20 goals from the first 11 games of the season - a tally only basement dwellers Newcastle United and Norwich City could trump.

Steven Gerrard
Steven Gerrard has collected 12 points from his first eight Premier League games as Aston Villa manager / Justin Setterfield/GettyImages

In the intervening seven weeks, Gerrard has taken significant strides to achieving this target of shipping fewer goals.

Since the 41-year-old's appointment during the November international break, Villa have conceded an average of 0.98 non-penalty expected goals (xG) per game (according to FotMob), giving up chances worth less than one strike each match. Under Smith, this figure had ballooned to 1.24.

However, while all the focus has been on tightening the rearguard, there has been little improvement on a middling forward line that remains a shadow of the attacking force from last season.

Villa laboured through a 2-1 defeat to Brentford on the weekend in another performance where their attacking verve was effectively stifled.

Nevertheless, Villa actually took an early lead in an underwhelming and reserved contest. Emi Buendia pirouetted past Christian Norgaard in the middle of the pitch before sliding a perfectly weighted pass into the stride of Danny Ings, allowing the forward to fire in the game’s opening goal after a quarter of an hour.

Robbed of their top scorer Ollie Watkins - himself on the mediocre tally of five Premier League goals this season - Ings was granted a first chance to start through the middle under Gerrard without his fellow forward.

In a sharp-edged individual performance from the 29-year-old, Ings was quick to shift the ball into space away from the red and white striped shirt never far from his side, but repeatedly found a Brentford body blocking his strike by the time he pulled the trigger.

Ings' opener was the latest in a concerning trend; in three appearances without Watkins crowding his space Ings has scored each time, compared to just one goal from 11 games alongside (but mostly on top of) one another.

With Buendia bubbling through the match and dovetailing intermittently with Ings, Villa dominated possession and territory for the opening 40 minutes without seriously threatening to double their advantage.

In Gerrard's eight Premier League matches with the Villans, his side have averaged 0.94 xG per game, running along at the same rate as his predecessor Smith (0.96). Yet, both these figures represent a drop off from the previous campaign when Villa were racking up chances worth 1.42 xG each match.

The most bitter aspect of a performance in which Gerrard lamented the lack of 'grit' from his side was the clinical edge Brentford offered in sharp contrast to Villa's relative bluntness.

Yoane Wissa fired the hosts level on the cusp of half-time with a rare moment of quality and incision before Mads Roerslev completed the comeback in the game's final ten minutes.

Gerrard was quick to highlight this clinical discrepancy, telling Sky Sports: “It was too easy to score against us today because we haven’t faced ten chances today, we haven’t face ten really dangerous attacks. We’ve faced three dangerous moments and conceded two goals.”