“He is very different. A physical specimen,” Steven Gerrard tells Sky Sports. He is talking about Erling Haaland. “From afar we knew that he had world-class ability and he is certainly backing that up right now.” Then comes the smile.
“So, hopefully Pep gives him a rest tomorrow (Saturday).”
There has not been much for the Aston Villa manager to smile about this season and few expect that to change when his team face Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at Villa Park on Saturday.
“Everyone expects them to win this game and win it comfortably,” he adds. “The challenge for us is to go and prove the world [wrong].”
When Gerrard arrived at Villa in November there was cautious optimism. In his first managerial job, he had won Rangers’ first league title for a decade. Villa had been in the bottom five but there was money to spend and hope that he could reinvigorate the club.
Caution made way for belief when he won four of his first six games, losing the other two by the odd goal to Liverpool and Man City.
Nine months on and the mood has changed.
Four defeats from the opening five games have tested patience. There were boos last weekend when beaten by West Ham. Gerrard acknowledges that he is concerned. But what does he think is the problem at Aston Villa and what is it that he has to change?
“We need to stop conceding goals,” he says.
“From a defensive point of view, the effort and application has certainly been there. We have a lot of people dying for the cause. Our goalkeeper is making saves, our defenders are making blocks, we are winning certain duels and situations.
“But against these high-level teams it is about the detail.”
He has the receipts.
There were a couple of examples in the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal on Wednesday evening. “The two goals we conceded – and a lot of goals we have conceded – have been down to individuals.” He does not name names in this instance but perhaps he does not have to.
“Showing someone the wrong way rather than on their weaker side.” It is easy to conclude that this is a reference to the team’s erstwhile captain Tyrone Mings allowing Bukayo Saka to cut inside on his favoured left foot and cross the ball for Gabriel Martinelli’s winner.
“Are you getting up to people and closing them down or are you just getting up to people and pressing with your eyes? It is these little last bits of the defensive detail that you have to get right at the top level because if you don’t, the best players in the world will hurt you.
“That is the reason we are in the position we are in.”
There is an exasperation there because Gerrard believed he had addressed the team’s defensive weaknesses when he signed the renowned Sevilla centre-back Diego Carlos for £26m in the summer. The Brazilian injured his Achilles in the win over Everton.
“He was brought in for a reason,” says Gerrard.
“That was to stiffen us up and help us, making our defensive line a lot stronger. Knowing that the personnel was quite similar, we knew that we might have similar issues to the six months prior. To lose him at the back was very important.”
Villa went back into the transfer market on deadline day to bring in Jan Bednarek from Southampton and Leander Dendoncker from Wolves. “To get two new faces in should help us, bringing some energy, some quality and some competition for places.”
They are sensible signings, both with considerable Premier League experience. But in a sense that is the reason why time is not on Gerrard’s side. Carlos is 29. Philippe Coutinho is 30. Lucas Digne has replaced the younger Matty Targett at some expense.
These were not signings for the distant future but acquisitions to help improve this team in the here and now. As a result, there is little appetite among supporters to hear this talk of individual errors. They want to know how Gerrard plans to stop them happening.
The answers will not come from the market now. “I am pleased that it is closed. You know exactly what you are working with until at least January. It gives you more clarity.” That means that Gerrard must get on the grass and coach these errors out of his team.
“You need to continue to work and keep giving them the right messages, keep drilling these players, keep putting them in scenarios they are going to face on a matchday. That is on myself and my coaches to keep working and keep giving that information.
“But there is also an onus on individuals to do their job for the team. We need the players who have been here for a period of time to step forward. That is across the board. It is on the players to go and carry that out and deliver for us.”
At the other end of the pitch, more fluency is needed.
His tactics have been criticised, with talk of the team being too narrow in midfield. What once might have been heralded as flexibility had results been coming is now being interpreted as flitting between formations in search of solutions that never arrive.
“There are always people who point fingers in this situation but that won’t stop me backing myself and believing what I believe in. I won’t make drastic changes to what I believe in. This team has shown it is capable. We believe we can get through it and make it turn.”
There is determination there, the sort of defiant streak that defined his playing career and helped him to shift the power dynamic in Scotland. Asked what he might say to supporters in search of some signs of progress beyond the bald statistics, he offers no platitudes.
“I don’t think the supporters want cheap words at the moment. I think the fans want action and results. Words don’t give you that, it is performances. It is individuals stepping forward. It is us all accepting responsibility. We are the ones who can put it right.
“We need results. There is no getting away from it. I certainly realise where I am at and the challenge in front of me. There will be no shirking away from that, it is very much a case of rolling your sleeves up. That is what I have said to the players.
“I don’t think anyone in the game enjoys being on the receiving end of this type of run of results. They would be lying if they told you it was nice because it is not. Everyone wants to win. Everyone wants to feel good and feel proud.
“But there is only one way to get back there and that is to stick together and fight for every point that is available. Really show that siege mentality and togetherness that we can get through this tough period. In terms of me, it just makes me extra determined.
“I know what I signed up for. I knew there was going to be periods where we had to suffer and go through tough times. We are experiencing one of those situations now. But I believe it won’t be long before we are feeling a lot better about ourselves.”
Erling Haaland awaits.
Steven Gerrard on the Man City challenge
Does Erling Haaland make it a slightly different challenge?
“I think so. You need to be diligent with this individual, which is easier said than done because that is the level of player you are dealing with. He is a top player but if you focus too much on one player in this situation you can neglect the other world-class talent that they have. That is what you are dealing with here.”
Is the plan to press higher up the pitch or defend deep?
“We certainly won’t be parking the bus on the edge of our box but sometimes City force you back into these situations and you have to make sure you carry a threat in counter-attacking situations. I think it would be very gung-ho if you tried to press City too high because they have that speed, that final pass. So you have to get that balance right to make sure that in certain situations you counter-press.”
Can Villa take encouragement from previous meetings?
“In both City tests that we have had before we have had the opportunity to get points. One was we never took a chance in the final minute at the Holte End with young Carney [Chukwuemeka]. And obviously to be two up after 75 minutes, we just ran out of steam. But we certainly shook City and had them concerned for large periods of that game so we are more than capable of hurting this team at the right moments.”
What will it take to get a result against Man City?
“When you are playing against this level of team it is probably more important there are no silly turnovers. They are a high pressing team and get bodies around you so it is important we have the ability to play out of pressure but also hurt them.
“We need people who can run and carry us up the pitch. To get some rest from the out-of-possession stuff you have got to have players who take responsibility, that back themselves because otherwise you are never going to be able to throw your own punches.
“To get something against City you have to find the perfect performance. On current form that looks highly unlikely, I get that. But this is football, this is the opportunity that we have got in 90 minutes. We need a result. It does not matter who the next challenge is. We need that result that will spring us into a better run of form.”
Watch Aston Villa vs Manchester City live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm