- Leicester City are Aston Villa's visitors in the Premier League on Sunday
- Birmingham Live football writer John Townley has previewed the fixture for LCFC Radio
- Townley says Steven Gerrard's impact has led to expectations to rise at the Birmingham club
- He also points to the defensive improvements being made since his appointment
Gerrard was confirmed as Dean Smith's replacement at Villa Park after five consecutive Premier League defeats for the Birmingham club. The seven-time English champions looked to Scottish Premiership winners Rangers to recruit their new manager on 11 November.
Former Liverpool midfielder Gerrard won the title with Rangers last season, doing a double over bitter rivals Celtic, remaining unbeaten throughout 2020/21 and ending a 10-year wait to secure a 55th championship at Ibrox Stadium. Since joining Villa, he's won two and lost one in charge of the club.
Ollie Watkins and Tyrone Mings found the net in a 2-0 success over Brighton & Hove Albion, before Matt Targett and John McGinn struck at Crystal Palace in a 2-1 victory. Manchester City, though, proved too strong, despite Watkins giving them hope in the second half of a 2-1 home reverse on Wednesday.
Leicester City are next up in the west Midlands on Sunday (4:30pm GMT kick-off).
"It’s been really positive," Townley told LCFC Radio's Matchday Live show. "There were expectations when he came in. He obviously did a brilliant job at Rangers. I think he was unbeaten for a couple of seasons at home. He went unbeaten in the title-winning season they had last year at Ibrox.
"There was plenty to look forward to when he came through the door, but a lot of Villa fans, and perhaps the club as well, have been pleasantly surprised by how quickly he’s managed to change the culture almost.
After winning the title in Scotland with Rangers, Steven Gerrard is making a big impression at Villa Park.
"He’s changed the direction the club was going because, after losing five games in a row, you’re almost looking towards the bottom of the league table. He got wins over Brighton and Crystal Palace to start his tenure and then, on Wednesday evening, losing to Man City, but it was a spirited performance.
"There were certainly a lot of positives in that. The manner of the victories have been really encouraging, considering they shipped plenty of goals in those five defeats. They only conceded at Crystal Palace to a consolation goal in the last couple of seconds and they kept a clean sheet against Brighton.
"Man City’s expected goals was kept just below one as well, which was really encouraging for Gerrard and his team," he continued. "It’s been a very impressive start, certainly, for Gerrard and it’s one which Villa fans are now looking forward to throughout the rest of the season.
"There’s a project in place at the club as well and that’s certainly what Gerrard will be hoping to embark on."
Villa's impressive defensive record last term had disintegrated early on this season, but Gerrard has already got to work at trying to restore that solidity as soon as possible. Townley, a regular follower of Villa's fortunes, has been encouraged by their backline's efforts since his appointment.
There’s plenty there to work with for Gerrard. It’s a project he’s fully getting into and it’s started very well, at least so far.John Townley Birmingham Live
"The defence last season kept 15 clean sheets," he added. "Only Man City and Chelsea kept more, so you’ve certainly got the personnel there. There’s no change at all and, in midfield as well, there’s a backbone, a structure, there as well.
"Gerrard will be enthused that he has the same personnel there and that’s something he can work on. The shape of the team under Dean Smith had become slightly skewed. The new signings came in – Leon Bailey and Emiliano Buendía – and they haven’t exactly hit the ground running.
"They’ve got some catching up to do to get up to speed in the Premier League, with the physicality, and the shape Gerrard now wants. Being a winger in the Premier League, you’ve got to go the other way as well.
"They’ve been left open some times this season against most clubs they've played, apart from Brighton and Palace. They got caught out for a few defensive errors against Man City and they’ll punish you like most teams in the Premier League probably wouldn’t. Clean sheets are a staple for Gerrard.
"Rangers only shipped 13 goals. Although it’s in the Scottish division, that shows that he likes to build his teams off a solid foundation, a solid backbone. There’s plenty to be encouraged about.
"He almost reminds me of how [Brendan] Rodgers like to play with Leicester, trying to start from the back and then looking to win the game on the counter. They try to use their more creative players going forward, which Villa do have with Ollie Watkins. It’s the same with Bailey, Buendía and [Anwar] El Ghazi.
"There’s plenty there to work with for Gerrard. It’s a project he’s fully getting into and it’s started very well, at least so far."
Form has picked up for the Birmingham club after five successive defeats under outgoing manager Dean Smith.
Expectations will naturally begin to grow at Villa Park after three commendable performances under Gerrard's guidance – and Townley believes they can challenge in the top half of the table if his methods continue to have a positive impact on the squad.
"At the start of the season, the club were hoping to start around mid-table and looking to break into the top half," he explained. "Last season, with Jack Grealish, you were thinking about breaking into that top seven.
"For large portions of that campaign, they were knocking on that door, until Grealish was injured. They didn’t really finish where they’d like to and I think that was ultimately a key contributor to why Smith lost his job in the season because they were knocking on the door of seventh last year.
"This campaign, the captain, Tyrone Mings, has said himself they’re looking to try and finish around mid-table. They want to stabilise and then push forward in the coming years. Now Gerrard’s walked through the door, it’s almost re-enthused the club to think: ‘We can finish in the top half’.
"If you look at the teams above them, Brighton, Palace, Leicester… they’ve beaten Brighton and Palace and they know they can compete against these teams. Can they finish in the top half? I think that’s definitely the expectation, but it’s about putting results together and points on the board.
"If Gerrard can continue on the trajectory he’s going on at the moment, there’s every chance they can at least finish in the top half, which is a very exciting prospect."
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