Early winner: Steven Gerrard, ahead of schedule at resurgent Villa

Dave Tickner
Aston Villa boss Steven Gerrard celebrates victory at Crystal Palace

Leaders Chelsea, second-placed Liverpool, Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa.

There you have the full and complete list of teams to beat Crystal Palace in the Premier League this season – and Villa are the first to defeat them at Selhurst Park.

It’s undeniably true that this was perhaps the most disjointed and unconvincing performance from Palace since Patrick Vieira took over in the summer, despite some marked second-half improvement, but it would also be remiss to give Villa no credit for that fact.

This was always going to be an eye-catching clash between two teams with aspirations and now managed by two of this league’s most enduring names. Based on what we’ve seen from Palace and the early days of Gerrard at Villa, these two legendary former players are going to fare rather better than some.

Maybe the fact they are making their way at different clubs to those where they are held in such high regard is a factor.

Whatever it is, Gerrard has already done much to change the mood and approach of Villa. Dean Smith had done wonderful things for the club he loves – and has already made an eye-catching start of his own having rebounded straight into the Norwich job – but something had looked broken about Villa this season.

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They are not the first club to find out how difficult it can be to sell the beating heart of your team and try to replace him with a phalanx of shiny new signings and won’t be the last. They didn’t even do a bad job of it, all things considered.

It’s just unbelievably difficult to replace someone like Jack Grealish. It’s unbelievably difficult not to lean on that outrageous talent when it’s there, and just as difficult to adjust once it’s not.

For Smith and Villa it wasn’t happening and there was no evidence that this was about to change. Those five bleak defeats at the end of Smith’s reign shouldn’t define it or undo all that went before but they were enough to suggest a change was needed. Villa were being dragged inexorably into a relegation fight.

They still might end up there, of course. They’ve got Manchester City, Leicester and Liverpool in their next three games and things might easily look very different again.

But right now, sitting level on points with a Palace team that has been so impressive this season, it’s hard to shake the knee-jerk thought that Villa and Gerrard have both got this absolutely right.

The wins over Brighton and Palace were very different kinds of games, but both came against teams who have garnered much deserved praise this season. Things now get tougher still on paper, but that’s the point: Gerrard wasn’t walking into an easy start here, with a team shorn of all confidence and five games to start at least as tough as the five just lost.

For all that Villa had resources that suggested they were clearly underperforming and could be turned around, it always looked like it would need time to happen. A festive period with games against lesser opposition such as Norwich and Burnley and Brentford and Manchester United looked like the time for Gerrard’s arrival to make its mark if it was going to.

Now he and his new side are firmly ahead of schedule.