Mitrovic strikes as Fulham beat 10-man Aston Villa in Gerrard’s final match
It was a night of indignities by the Thames. There was Douglas Luiz making it easy for Marco Silva’s rampant Fulham by letting the side down with a brainless red card. There was rotten defending, a hapless own goal from Tyrone Mings and no shortage of dissent from Aston Villa’s travelling supporters, who were not shy in making it clear that they wanted the board to put them out of their misery and give Steven Gerrard his marching orders.
Of course, the romantic take would be to dwell on how Gerrard always fought until the bitter end when he was rampaging around midfield for Liverpool. But management is a lonelier, harsher job. It is hard not to pity Gerrard. He came into the press room after yet another sorry effort from Villa, who were fortunate it only ended 3-0, and insisted he was not a quitter. The club made him talk and then, before the evening was done, they released a 41-word statement announcing that Gerrard had gone after less than a year in the job.
It was a brutal way to go. But it has been coming. Villa are out of the bottom three only on goals scored and are in a bad place. The fans who travelled down to Craven Cottage summed up the darkening mood, booing their manager at half-time and after the final whistle, and on the evidence of their efforts here the players have also given up on Gerrard, who was unable to change anything about his team failing to match Fulham for work rate, organisation and technical ability.
It was an embarrassment for Gerrard. The first charge is that he botched it tactically when he tried to neutralise Aleksandar Mitrovic’s aerial threat by handing a debut to Jan Bednarek, which simply invited Willian to expose Ezri Konsa’s discomfort at right-back during a torrid opening period. The second is that he sent out a team with no discernible plan. Villa were directionless in every department and perhaps the frustration affected Luiz, who was sent off for headbutting Mitrovic when Fulham were only 1-0 up.
Not that anything should be taken away from a magnificent Fulham performance. Victory moved them up to ninth and was reward for the job Silva has done since winning the Championship last season. “A well deserved win,” Fulham’s manager said. “Finally we got a clean sheet at home this season.”
While Silva hailed Harrison Reed for scoring a fine opener and praised Andreas Pereira and Willian for their inventive displays, Gerrard cut a desolate figure when he arrived for his post-match press conference.
The 42-year-old had hoped that Villa would build on their promising performance in their defeat to Chelsea. What he got was a shambles. Villa were shapeless and Gerrard’s decision to play Bednarek looked misguided from the moment that Willian and Antonee Robinson began to team up on Konsa.
Fulham pummelled Villa. Emiliano Martínez made two excellent saves from Willian. Pereira, all clever footwork and darting runs in the No 10 position, went close with three fine efforts from long range. Bobby Decordova-Reid charged forward from right-back and picked out Mitrovic, who headed over.
Fulham were in charge. They threatened from set pieces, Mings hacking a Mitrovic header off the line, and the pressure soon told. Willian delivered a corner from the left in the 36th minute and Martínez’s punch dropped to Reed, who brought the ball down and lashed a shot home from 18 yards.
At least the goal stirred Villa into life, Bernd Leno denying Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings, but it was not enough to placate the travelling support. Something had to change. Gerrard’s defensive ploy had backfired and the Bednarek experiment was ditched during the break, with the introduction of Matty Cash enabling Konsa to move back into the centre.
Yet it made no difference. Villa are a team full of disappointments. Leon Bailey offered nothing on the right. Ings fluffed a headed chance. Nobody tracked their runners and indiscipline soon took hold. There was a booking for Mings for cleaning out Willian and before play could restart Michael Oliver was going over to the pitchside monitor to watch a replay of Luiz butting Mitrovic.
It was game over for Gerrard. Fulham piled forward and soon pulled clear, Mitrovic burying a penalty after his volley was handled by Cash.
Mitrovic’s eighth goal of the season was not the end. With seven minutes left Neeskens Kebano tore past Cash and his cross was turned in by Mings. Gerrard, who had dropped Mings at the start of the season, had nowhere to turn.