Dean Smith did his job exceptionally well last season, after avoiding relegation by a meagre point on the final day of the 2019/20 campaign.
Everything took a turn for the worse last season for Aston Villa, including injuries and individual horrors in a panically assembled squad, although Villa coach Smith kept morale high and wisely used the pandemic-enforced break to sit back and reflect back upon what was going wrong at Villa Park after which they ultimately pulled clear of the drop.
The resurgence of Aston Villa began when Project Restart kicked off, where football returned after a three-month hiatus forced by the Coronavirus crisis.
“At times there was just a candle flickering but we managed to get some electricity and heat things up a bit,” said Smith of the late-season surge by his players. “We faced three shots on target in the last four games, which was an incredible team effort.”
Dean Smith later added how he has envisioned his side to once again compete at the very top, with the very best and why being ambitious is key for every team.
“Villa footballers have won the top trophy before, the European Cup in 1982,” Smith said.
“I’m not saying I’m going to lead the team to that but that has to be the aim; to plan, over the next five or six years, to try to be challenging in Europe and things like that. You see the progress Wolverhampton have made over the last three years and that’s been fantastic to see as a fellow Midlander. You can’t help but admire what they’ve done. So a club as historically esteemed as ourselves should be aiming at that level as well. That’s what our owners will be aiming at and that’s what we have to aim at as coaching and playing staff.”
It’s been a bright start to the season for Dean Smith and his Aston Villa, who have exceeded all sorts of expectations coming into the 2020/21 season. The Villans have 26 points from their first 15 games and have played some mouth-watering football.
Aston Villa are scoring goals for fun and have the third highest goal difference in the league. Along with the goals, they boast the third best defensive record as well. They are 7 points off top-spot with 2 games in hand which is a remarkable feat considering they escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth the previous season.
The owners, Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris, have once again backed Dean Smith this season in the transfer window which includes the record purchase of the striker Ollie Watkins for a fee that could reach £33m, the arrival of goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez from Arsenal for about £20m, the £16m acquisition of the defender Matty Cash and Bertrand Traoré from Lyon for about £19m.
“Our mantra [for recruitment] this season was quality over quantity,” says Smith. “Last season was quantity because we needed to get 12 or 13 players in.”
We breakdown key factors to play a part in the resurgence of the Villans and Dean Smith.
Reshuffle behind the scenes
Right before the suspension of the season last season due to the pandemic, Aston Villa sat in 19th position. Dean Smith was feeling the heat from fans and board than ever.
The Aston Villa board’s decision to stick with Smith throughout the lockdown paid off, as Aston Villa began Project Restart like a rejuvenated side and ultimately escaped relegation.
After securing a place in the Premier League for the 2020/21 season, Dean Smith made sure the club did not repeat the mistakes that got them in such a ruckus in the first place and reaffirmed that nobody at the club was satisfied with a 17th-placed finish.
The club evidently believed the £130m splashed on players last season after Smith guided the team out of the Championship could have been spent better. Johan Lange was appointed as the new sporting director as soon as the season ended, replacing Jesús García “Suso” Pitarch. Rob Mackenzie was also hired as the head of football recruitment
Craig Shakespeare was also appointed as assistant manager was also an incredible piece of business by the Villa board, who was last seen as the interim manager at Leicester City.
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) December 31, 2020
Rumours had also surfaced suggesting that Suso had brought in players which Smith did not approve off. Smith replied to this saying that, “Whatever was speculated before, I was in full agreement with the players brought in with Suso and I will be with Johan as well,” he said.
“I felt for Suso last season because it was such a big turnover and I thought we did a fantastic job doing what we did. You’ll never hear a bad word about Suso from me. I really enjoyed working with him. The club decided to go in a different direction.
“My role [in recruitment] is pretty much the same. As soon as Johan came into the club we sat down and profiled the positions we needed and then it’s a case of me adding some names I liked in those positions. Then it’s down to the recruitment department, headed by Rob and with Johan’s input, to come up with players that a) fit the profile, b) fit the personality profile and c) are actionable. They come up with a list and I sit down with the coaches and decide the best ones.”
Quality over Quantity
While Aston Villa’s recruitment in the previous season had been in abundance, very few of them really added quality to the already available roster to Dean Smith. In the 2019/20 summer window, Villa spent roughly £100 million to bolster their squad for the Premier League.
Centre-back Engels and the multiple goalkeeper signings did not help their case. Also their inclination towards signing players from the so called smaller league’s earned a lot of criticism, with both Wesley and Mbwana Sammata finding life hard in the Premier League.
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) January 6, 2021
This season, however, Villa changed their approach and relied much more on the tried and tested players of England’s top tier leagues. Addressing the goalkeeping department was important and the signing of Emiliano Martinez from Arsenal was shrewd business.
The signings of Ollie Watkins for from Brentford and Matty Cash from Nottingham Forest was clever business, with the duo making an instant impact at the club. Deadline day arrival Ross Barkley has proved vital as well, with the Chelsea loanee showing glimpses of his old self in a more familiar number 10 role. Bertrand Traore, signed from Lyon, has previously played in the Premier League for Chelsea and seems to be finally finding his feet at Villa Park, ripping defences with his left foot.
With all those new signings, what has been overlooked is the fact that Aston Villa’s best bit of business came in the form of securing new deals for Tyrone Mings and club captain Jack Grealish. These deals show a lot of intent from the club and are really healthy for the long-term future of the club. Villa’s ability to fend off interest from big clubs for their captain shows that they mean business and their performances this season show nothing less than that.
Core is Key
Dean Smith has largely settled on a team this season with Villa making the fewest starting eleven changes. That has been evident in their performances. Nine players have started every Premier League game this season.
Smith hopes the quality over quantity mantra, will enable him to field a more consistent line-up. “Last season we probably only had a handful of players who you could say were guaranteed starters, your A+ players. The team changed around quite a bit.
The idea was always to build that small core of players into a bigger one in the second season so you can have nine or 10 players who you look at and say: ‘He must be doing something poorly if he’s not starting a game.’ You look at Liverpool and other top teams, that’s what they have, a real core of eight-nine players who are playing week in, week out because of their quality.”
These five have all played every single minute (𝟭,𝟯𝟱𝟬) in the Premier League so far this season. pic.twitter.com/AA25cOmwt4
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) January 4, 2021
Smith identifies the core players from last season as Tyrone Mings, John McGinn, Douglas Luiz and Jack Grealish, who have been the standouts so far this season.
That reflects a positive kind of pressure Smith encourages at Villa. “We’re very fortunate to have the owners we do. They’ve invested an awful lot of money already and now it is going to be down to the strategy of the people they have employed. It’s not just about the finances they have because we want to make it a sustainable club. We signed an awful lot of players with potential last season and they have to go on and fulfill their potential.
“I’m not saying I’m going to lead the team to that but that has to be the aim; to plan, over the next five or six years, to try to be challenging in Europe and things like that.
“Once they start fulfilling their potential then the world can be your oyster because players get to a level where they are pushing each other. Because if they’re not, then they want to go to clubs that are competing in Europe. That’s where we as a club have to push ourselves to make sure their hunger is being fed.
“Last season we felt we would have been better than six or seven teams but, with the injuries that we had, staying up was a success. Now we have to do better. We won’t be happy just hanging on this season. We’re about growing, trying to become a better team and better players.”
Trust eventually pays off
The boss ripped up the script in lockdown and drew a new and much simplified one which was aimed at galvanising his confidence-sapped squad. Smith instilled somewhat of a siege mentality with football experts, already writing Villa off as relegation fodder.
Countless Zoom calls, both one-to-one and in groups – were arranged as Smith devised his escape plan with his team. Aston Villa had the second worst defence in the Premier League last season, conceding 67 goals. There was no doubt that Villa needed to change things at the back. During the lockdown, it was Dean Smith who did a lot of homework. The Englishman studied Liverpool’s defensive structure and style of defending; he also emphasized upon the importance of a solid backline.
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) January 3, 2021
From almost losing his job to turning the tide at this club, Dean Smith deserves a lot of credit for Aston Villa’s resurgence in the past six months. The development of Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa has been phenomenal, with the duo looking extremely assured at the back for Aston Villa.
Douglas Luiz’s rise as a disciplined defensive midfielder has done wonders for both the player and the team which has allowed Aston Villa to play with a lot more freedom.
To put that into perspective, only five teams have scored more goals than Villa. Majority of those teams have also played two games more so Smith will be very satisfied.
No more a one-man show
Aston Villa were without a doubt a one-man show last season, and their over-reliance on Jack Grealish was evident while going forward. Teams could easily mark him and nullify major threats from Villa’s side.
The addition of Ross Barkley in the number 10 role has allowed Grealish to receive the ball in much more dangerous areas. Grealish can now focus on scoring and creating goals and leave the ball progression to his midfielders.
Ollie Watkins has added to the much maligned Aston Villa attack as well. He has the ability to hold the ball and run in behind the defence. He can create space for the likes of Barkley and Grealish, where the duo can combine and cause damage. Watkins’s predator-like instincts are a huge asset to this Villa attack as well.
Aston Villa lacked tenacity in their frontline last season. This time around, they look fierce. They have pace, silkiness and are extremely clinical. Putting seven goals past the champions of England is an achievement to be proud of. Full-backs Matty Cash and Matt Targett also add an X-factor to the Villa attack.
Villa look very tight-knit as a unit. They combine beautifully going forward. McGinn and Luiz in midfield are a deadly pairing. McGinn adds to the attacking impetus as well while Luiz has impressed everyone with his performances in the middle of the park. Villa’s stability in defence and an answer to the goalkeeping conundrum has really helped them gain confidence from the back. Aston Villa look like a really exciting team this season, but it was surely a team effort.