The Liverpool legend didn’t get a result he wanted, but made a few sizeable statements to draw applause from managerial greats
It was not pretty, it was not the mental picture he’d have designed, and yet the manner in which Steven Gerrard handled his Anfield return will have attracted applause from the managerial almighty, as well as a master of the dark arts who unsuccessfully tried to sign him on three occasions.
Sir Alex Ferguson, already a happy subscriber to the 41-year-old’s steering of press conferences, will have raised a glass of the finest red to how Gerrard contoured the post-match narrative.
Aston Villa had zero shots on target on Saturday afternoon and just one inside the box, yet there was no long lens on those facts with Gerrard shifting the discussion solely on refereeing decisions.
Mohamed Salah’s penalty was the decisive moment in a match where the hosts had a hat-trick of earlier appeals denied. Gerrard made sure the lasting talking point was the credence of awarding a foul on the Egyptian and the incredulity of waving away shouts for a Danny Ings’ spot-kick.
His assertion was that Salah had impeded Tyrone Mings initially, despite the defender first trying to pull the forward back. Die Premierliga’s top scorer accelerated and smartly moved across his Villa marker to shield the ball, but their legs collided in a clumsy scene for the visiting skipper.
Mings’ face, and complete absence of protest, told the story. At the opposite end of the pitch, the defensive scare between Alisson and Joel Matip was the debris of an Ings push on the centre-back. The goalkeeper got a hand on the ball and no Villa player apart from the striker had made a sound over that incident.
Ferguson was the chief of spinning his version of events as the truth, insisting that “for a manager, no matter the result, at a press conference you need to come out as the winner. It’s a vital part of the job.”
Gerrard’s comments were rinsed by those with a Liverpool affiliation but that mattered not: it set the agenda and endeared him to the Villa faithful.
He would not repeat his former boss Gerard Houllier’s mistake of being too familiar with Anfield’s worshippers, too loose with praise, love and affection. The late Frenchman was a foe to his own fans when he took Villa to Merseyside in 2010 and failed to filter his emotions in a heavy defeat: “If I was going to lose 3-0 to anyone, it would be Liverpool as I like Liverpool.”
Gerrard’s tune was in calculated contrast. And his approach at Anfield was more in keeping with an old enemy rather than hometown legend.
Jose Mourinho’s manual in enforcing time-wasting as a great obstruction tool was in play, with Emi Martinez’s kicks keeping Jurgen Klopp glued in conversation with the fourth official.
Gerrard was savvy enough not to be expansive against a side that has smashed in a phenomenal 45 league goals this season with the idea of containment a concrete one.
But frustrating the opposition has to be finessed with some kind of offensive threat, which was invisible for Villa. Gerrard only unshackled his charges in response to Salah’s penalty and he admitted: “We’ll analyse and I’ll look at myself and whether I should have done it earlier. We didn’t want to get gung ho.”
A 1-0 defeat by this Liverpool team is highly credible, considering Manchester United, Arsenal, Southampton and Everton got pumped a combined 17-1 in recent history.
“I think in terms of the gameplan, it wasn’t the right thing to come here and pick a team which was too ambitious and bold, because you have to respect the level Liverpool are playing at,” Gerrard said.
“I know more than most, coming to Anfield you have to get through the first half-hour when Liverpool’s energy levels are high and they are pressing you ferociously. We had to get to the half-hour mark and we did a decent containing job.
“In general play we needed to be better in possession, but getting to half-time at 0-0 was the first part to the job done and then we had to get to 60-65 minute, and the penalty was a set-back. We wanted Liverpool to become nervous and then we could throw more ambition at it in the latter stages.”
It is a fool’s errand to draw any sort of conclusion on Gerrard’s suitability for the Anfield role in future based on this encounter, which has come so early into his Villa reign and features a completely different set of circumstances to a supreme Liverpool attempting to regain their championship.
He knows he has a lengthy, laboured way to go. “Stevie is obviously a good coach,” Klopp said, admitting he’d love for Gerrard to replace him in the dugout in 2024. His assessment on Villa’s manager will be echoed by Ferguson and Mourinho; those are some references to have this soon.