Stephen Gerrard returns to Anfield this weekend when Aston Villa meets Liverpool. Today former Liverpool and Aston Villa player Ray Houghton shares his thoughts on this weekend’s match and the future for both clubs heading into the January transfer window.
The pre match headlines will be dominated by Steven Gerrard’s return to Anfield. What should Liverpool players and fans expect from Gerrard’s Aston Villa?
“What they should expect is a team that’s fully focused. If you look at the results since Stevie has taken over – 3 wins and only 1 defeat to Man City – you expect that considering the form City are at the moment.”
“They (Aston Villa) look like they’ve changed the shape slightly. They’ve gone 4-3-3. Before that Aston Villa were looking around, trying to find the best formula, best formation that could suit the players they have. They were going in between a back 3, back 4, back 5. With Steven coming in, he’s got a plan in place that he thinks is best for the team – that certainly looks 4-3-3.”
“Going into the game, every player will know exactly what’s required from them. They’ve shown in the previous games. But they’re up against one of the best teams in world football at the moment who are supremely confident.”
“Liverpool have just come off beating AC Milan and becoming the first team in English history that has won all 6 games in the (Champions League) group stage. That’s the form they’re in even when making the changes that they did which just shows you how confident they are.”
“It’s a big game for Villa that will tell Steven a little bit more about his team, his players and an understanding of what he wants going in to a stadium like Anfield where you’ve got to hold your nerves. He’ll find out a great deal about his individuals and as a team in the game.”
What should Gerrard expect from the Kop? A hero’s reception or also some jeers, considering he’s not ‘sentimental’ about it?
“Talk is cheap. It is easy to say I’m not sentimental. When you’ve been a club man and boy – Steven’s been there for a number of years. 17 years at the club. He only left to go to the LA Galaxy and that was for a year. His whole life has been at this football club and when you’ve been at a club and it has meant so much to you, you know what the fans want and you know what the expectations are. You have to deliver!”
“And he delivered 2 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup and the Champions League. If you’re looking at it from that point of view, the only thing he missed out on was the Premier League. In Brendan’s (Rodgers) season, they should have won that, but they found a way to lose it, with 3 games to go.”
“I hope – I don’t know, you never know in football – I hope that when he walks out, he gets the reception that he deserves for what he achieved at the club. And that wouldn’t just be the Liverpool supporters, that will be the Aston Villa fans as well because they know they’ve got a man here who looks like he’s there for the good of the club and wants to be a major success there.”
“I think the whole stadium will come as one to give him a resounding big thank you for everything he’s done and for what he’s doing.”
How do you expect the game to be played out on Saturday? Do you expect Klopp to field some of the players who featured in the win over Milan last night?
“No. Personally, I’ve done many events where I try setting the team that Jurgen Klopp is gonna pick and I’m a nought from hundred. He’s the hardest man to predict when it comes to team selection.”
“But I think on this occasion of where they are in the league, because he rested some players for the game against AC Milan, I think what you’ll do and try is play your strongest team.”
“And that is not because it’s Aston Villa and it’s Steven Gerrard, this is because he knows he has to keep pace with Chelsea and Man City. They are the main teams that are vying for the Premier League this season. Man Utd I think they’ll come in the second half of the season – they’ll improve and they’ll be up there vying for the Top 4 places.”
“At the moment, the form that Liverpool are in, they don’t want to start taking their foot off the accelerator, they don’t want to take a step back. And that is nothing against the squad players but when you’ve got a group that is playing well, picking up results week in week out, scoring freely then that’s what you have to try and take in to the games. So I don’t expect too many changes from the last league game.”
“Although their league games were bad recently, but once everyone is healthy, you put out your strongest team.”
“For Aston Villa – I have watched a lot of Liverpool this season – if I was in their (Aston Villa’s) shoes, I’d be looking to play the ball in behind. Not in front, in behind. You got to turn Liverpool.”
“You want to get something out of the game, you have to turn them because at Anfield, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson will be like wingers – they’re not going be like traditional full-backs. The way that Liverpool play, they will be 3 up top and the 2 full-backs supporting them. There’s your 5 and then one of the midfielders will help out the 2 of them on the sides, defensively. Predominantly, the front 3 and the 2 full backs.”
“So where is the space? The space is in behind the areas where the full backs are supposed to be, and not enough teams have tried to exploit that area.”
“Last year, when Aston Villa won 7-2 (against Liverpool) at home at Villa Park, they exploited the spaces in behind. They’ve got memories of that, they know where to go. It’s just whether they’re good enough and if they have enough of the ball to do that and create chances.”
“Liverpool, they dropped 2 points at home to Brighton. It was a 2-2 draw. Probably their away form has been a little better than their home form but in the recent wins against Arsenal and Everton, shows that they’re really confident.”
“You have to compete at the same level of your opposition, and your better players will shine. This is, and also was, there when I was at Liverpool. Liverpool have to try and do that to win the game but it won’t be easy against Villa.”
Luis Diaz of Porto has been linked to Liverpool. Is this a transfer you would like to see, or would you prefer Jarrod Bowen?
“When you’re picking wingers for Liverpool you have to look whether they’re as good as Mane and Salah. They are your benchmarks. Incredibly high benchmarks. Anyone that comes in, are they going live up to that?”
“Jota came in and, in all fairness, he’s hit the ground running. I saw him when he was 18-19 at Wolves, playing in the Championship. He was head and shoulders above everyone else. When I was watching, I was like ‘who is this kid’? I didn’t know he was even 18, I thought he was older because he played with an experience about him.”
“When you’re saying about players coming in, it’s not just about their ability. What you’ve got to look at is that can they handle expectations?”
“A lot of Liverpool players, during the time when they were not winning anything, could they handle the expectations of the Liverpool fans who needed that league title, and a lot of players just couldn’t handle it. Good players, some very good players. But when they got on to that pitch and the crowd was on top of them, they were like, ‘oh I’m not too sure about it’. And that’s one of the things that you cannot factor in.”
“Whoever you bring in from anywhere, can they handle the pressure of being at Liverpool FC where every trophy you go in to, there’s an expectation to win it. Not just do well, to win it and that’s how Jurgen Klopp has changed the mantra, at the time that he’s been there. It’s about winning, winning and winning. He wants that winning mentality.”
“Also, another thing you have to factor in is where’s the money? If you look to pre-season, there wasn’t an awful lot when it came to transfer dealings for Liverpool. There were more departures with players who wanted more game time moving on, than players coming in.
If there’s funding for it, and the players are good, if not better than he’s (Klopp) got, then he’ll do that.”
“Obviously with the AFCON coming up, is the depth of the squad strong enough to compete when you lose 2-3 of your top players.”
“Jurgen Klopp’s recruitment policy has been absolutely fantastic. There’s been very few that you look at and haven’t done well. Keita’s one that people keep talking about. Okay he’s not quite lived up to the heights when he first came at the club. He’s still young, he’s still learning and you still give him some time to grow as a player. Overall, Klopp’s recruitment policy has been excellent and I’m sure if its Jarrod Bowen and 1 or 2 others they’ve been looking at, fine.”
“There’s a lad who I like and that’s Chiesa at Juventus. I watched him in the Euros for Italy. Whether he would be up for coming to England, I don’t know. He’s all-action, creator, goalscorer. He’d certainly be a player I wouldn’t mind having at Liverpool.”
“The other 2, they’ve got talent there’s no doubt about it but whether they can handle the pressure of playing day in and day out for Liverpool? You don’t know. That’s the one factor you cannot put in a player because you just don’t know. You might know him as an individual or as a personality on the pitch but what’s he like if the pressure is heaped on him, can they handle it?”
Fabian Ruiz of Napoli has been recently linked to Liverpool as well. Do you think he would be a good fit?
“I watched a bit of him (Fabian Ruiz) and he’s quite a tall, leggy lad. What I liked about him is he’s a left-footer. You don’t see that enough of that around. You’ve got a lot of right footers playing on the left-hand side and the natural thing for them to do is come inside and they narrow the pitch up.”
“What I say to you is this: Liverpool, the way they play, with their front 3, the midfielders are not what I would call box-to-box players. They are side-to-side players because when the full backs go up forward, the midfielders have to go sideways to defend. It’s not all about going in straight lines up and down the pitch.”
“Because the likes of Firmino, Mane, Salah and Jota are scoring so many goals you don’t put any responsibility on your midfielders to score goals. You don’t have to be a great creator – all you have to do is play it to the front 3-4 and let them get on with it because that’s where the danger is.”
“Liverpool are not playing from the back as much as people think. They’re getting it up to where the danger is and this up front. The danger is when Robertson and Alexander-Arnold get forward. They’re not doing it from the full back positions, they’re doing it at the wings, up at the other end of the field.”
“So when you’re looking at midfielders, you got to look for can he go side-to-side, can he get on the ball, technically is he good enough, has he got the vision and awareness to get it to the front men because that’s where Liverpool does most of the work to win football matches.”
Are there any Aston Villa players who could be a good addition to Liverpool? Or any Liverpool players who could add to Villa’s squad? Who would you add to Liverpool with AFCON looming?
“There’s been a lot of talk about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and where he should go, should he be staying at the club? Personally, I would hate to be someone who just comes on and gets an odd game here or there. I don’t want my career determined by that. If money is your goal, you might want to stay but you only get one career and you want to finish it playing as many games as you can, playing at the best level that you can. You want to be playing.”
“If I was on the bench, I would not be a very happy person. I’m not in the XI. That’s not what I want and I wouldn’t want to be on the bench every week and get 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there.”
“At some stage as a player, you got to think what’s best for me. When I finish my career is it about how much money is in the bank? Or is it about how I really enjoyed and had a great time playing? It’s playing.”
“When you’re a kid , 10 or 12, you only want to play football. You don’t want to be on the bench do you? You don’t ever see a kid, 12 years of age, saying to his coach – ‘please put me on the bench, I’m happy enough being here’. They all want to be in the team and it should be no different when you progress up to premier level.”
“There’s a few boys who’re not getting much game time and as much as they want to be part of Liverpool, at some stage they’ve got to think where’s my career, where’s my goal, how many games am I going to play?”
“Let’s talk about Nat (Phillips). He only signed a new contract in August, a 4-year deal, which gives him security. But, when Konate comes in and you’ve got Joe Gomez, Matip and Virgil van Dijk, that’s 4 lads in your position. You got to look at it realistically, Konate has been brought in ahead of you.”
“He’s (Nat Phillips) been improving with the few games he’s had this season. It’s something he’s got to see, ‘okay I’ve got security of being at the club but where’s my career going?’ For that he’s got to go out and play more games and I would say the same about Neco Williams. Neco, it looks like he’s got some ability in him but at some stage, he’ll want to progress, be challenged, be playing.”
“It does not mean they don’t have a career at Liverpool, they just need games. There’s one thing training, one thing playing a level down at the club but nothing, nothing compares to being in the first team.”
“You’re training Monday to Friday, and you play Saturday, Sunday. You don’t train just to be on the bench. Is that what your career is all about? It’s really up to them as individuals what they want out of their careers so when they finish, they can look back and say ‘I gave it a go’, ‘I went somewhere because I thought it was the right decision for me to get football matches and play games.’”
Sports journalist Luke Hatfield said that Tyrone Mings makes too many mistakes to play for a top 6 club. Do you agree with him on that statement?
“Statements like that are subjective. It’s just his opinion, and he’s entitled to have that opinion. Whether it’s right or wrong.”
“I have the utmost respect for Tyrone [Mings]. He came through Chippenham Town, went to Ipswich, he was lorded as this young kid coming through, goes to Bournemouth, was there for four seasons. He only played seventeen league games in four seasons. Injuries, one thing or another, he lost his way. He could easily have been someone you never heard of again. He got his head down. And I thought; ‘what’s happening’.”
“He got his chance at Aston Villa on loan. Gets in their first team. Gets them promoted and now he’s playing for England. And people are questioning if he’s a top 6 player or not.”
“Go and ask Steven Gerrard if he’s a top 6 player or not, because he could quite easily leave him out of the team. He’s got other players, other centre halves he could put in. He’s keeping him in the side. Go and ask Gareth Southgate. He keeps picking him for the England squad. He’s got 16 caps.”
“Tyrone’s judges, who I would know and trust, are picking him. It doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s got weaknesses, of course he’s got weaknesses in this game that he can improve.”
Douglas Luiz has been linked with a move away from Villa Park to AS Roma. What do you make of those rumours?
“I mean, back in the 80s, when I was playing. It [Roma] was one of the places to go. Because you learn a new culture, a new language, the money was better.”
“Everything changes. There aren’t many people that are actually making the change from the English Premier League to go to Spain at the moment, or to Italy, Germany or France. The majority of players wants to come to the English Premier League. Because that’s where the money is.”
“I think with Douglas, he’s been around English teams for a while, he knows what it is about and the only way I could see maybe he would want to go, was if he didn’t think he was going to feature in the team. If he felt that maybe he was getting pushed out or maybe he thought there was a vibe where the club was going in a different direction and he might not be part of it, then I wouldn’t blame him.”
“At the minute, I just think with Steven coming in and the owner, who’s got money, I believe that they will throw money at new players and investments. I would want to be part of that. He’s in the team at the minute. I don’t think I would be in a rush to leave Aston Villa at the minute if I was him.”
Fans are clamouring for a defensive midfielder to be added to Aston Villa. Harry Winks has been linked as well as Ross Barkley. Your take on those rumours?
“It depends what you want them for. If they want a deep lying midfielder, then you would go with Harry Winks. If you are looking for an offensive midfielder, you certainly should be looking at Ross Barkley, who knows the club, as he has been there on a loan spell.”
“I think, with Steven, what we mustn’t forget either is that he was at Rangers for a few years, so he has seen a few players up there that he might like as well. Like Glen Kamara, as an example. I watched Glen when he played for Finland against the Republic of Ireland, I didn’t know much about him before, and I was impressed by him. He controlled the back four, got the ball down, and was a continuity player. Kept it nice and easy. So Steven knows him. That could be a name there.”
“And then you got Joe Aribo. He’s out of contract, and he’s not going to sign a new one.”
“It might not be about the likes of Winks or Barkley. It might be people Steven knows and trusts, and I think with Steven at the minute, his first two or three signings are going to be big. Not just for him, but to set the tone within the club. What the club is about, what he is about, and his identity is.”
“This is a time in his career, where he will have to make the big choices, but get it right. It’s going to further him and his team.“
“There are some good players available and we know we’ll see plenty of movement in January, because teams are losing players due to the AFCON, and they need to bring players in, but whether it’s going to be short term loans or not we don’t know”
“You also have to have a pathway for the youngsters to come through. Aaron Ramsey and his brother Jacob Ramsey, and there’s one or two others, you already have a route through for them.”
“The next group of youngsters coming through will see that they can get their opportunities in the first team. If they can’t see that, then they will think: ‘what am I at the club for? If we are never going to get promoted into the first team, what’s the point?’”
“That’s something Klopp has done superbly well at Liverpool. He has opened it up to the younger players and given them a chance, not every game, but when he can. It’s not just about who you bring in, also about who you got and making sure you make a route through for them to get into the first team.”
Gabriel Agbonlahor mentioned that Gerrard has ‘transformed’ Emiliano Buendia. Do you agree with him?
“I think he has improved.”
“I think he had a bad start, personally. He didn’t have the greatest of starts, and that’s difficult.”
“When you come from Norwich, with all due respect to them, you come to Aston Villa, which is a massive club, the expectations are probably higher than at Norwich, and you come for big money.
“It’s hard if you are an attacking player, and your job is to be creative. Your job is to make things happen. And if the team isn’t playing well and you are not getting the ball, then you can’t showcase your talent. Then you start retreating or, and I think this might have happened to him, he started taking too many touches, started trying to be too precise with the passes. Then the crowd gets on your back. Then you aren’t getting on the ball as much as you should, because you’re worried about giving it away.”
“I think with the change of manager and emphasis, it has just freed him up. He has always had the abilities, now he’s got the confidence to go with his abilities.”
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