NOTE: All stats and facts correct at time of writing.
Has Dean Smith taken us as far as he can?
Take your mind back to the 2nd of February 2019. Before the pandemic had turned the country upside down and the idea of wearing a mask to the supermarket would have been some kind of surreal joke, Villa had just drawn 0-0 away to Reading (who happened to be starting Emi Martinez in goal) in the Championship. A Villa team starring the likes of Adomah, Neil Taylor, and Glenn Whelan where anchored below Birmingham City by goal difference, and sat in 9th place in the table, four points below sixth placed Bristol City.
At that point, 30 games into a 46 match season, Aston Villa were looking like a relatively pedestrian mid table Championship side, but fast forward 2 years and the club is in a place that the fans of 2019 could only dream of. Without a doubt, certain fans would have been sharpening their pitchforks after seeing a misfiring Tammy Abraham fail to breach the defence of a team who were, at the time, in the relegation places of the second tier. Those same fans would be similarly irate a year later, after relegation threatened Villa could only muster a 1-1 draw against an average Newcastle side, putting our very Premier League future in doubt in the process.
It is a testament to the fickleness of the average football fan that between these disappointing results of the past couple of years, Dean Smith’s managerial aptitude has provided us fans with a 7-2 thrashing of Premier League champions Liverpool, a record breaking winning run in the championship, and of course the ecstasy of play-off final glory - and yet still it seems as though the man doesn’t have the total confidence of a large section of Villa fans.
The character of Dean Smith, a lifelong Villa fan, is something that shouldn’t be underestimated. As Arsenal have learned with Arsene Wenger, a manager with a genuine passion for their team is a rare commodity that should be treated like gold dust. Edens and Sawiris handing Smith his P45 would be a personal nightmare for the manager, meaning more than it would any of the other 19 managers in the league. But this isn’t to say that Smith’s only benefit to the club is his dogged loyalty. At both Walsall and Brentford Smith proved that he can take the reins of a football club and lead them in the right direction over a healthy number of seasons. It’s a little known fact that Smith managed to steer Walsall to League One survival from a 9 point deficit in January of 2011. When Smith left Walsall after 4 years in charge he was actually the 4th longest manager in the top 4 tiers, and with Brentford having to pry him away from the West Midlands club it is little doubt that he could have remained in the role with even more longevity had he wished to do so. At Brentford Smith continued to walk a positive past. Few Brentford fans would have complained at Smith’s track record of comfortable top half finishes between 2015 and 2017 in one of England’s most volatile and unpredictable leagues, and it could be argued that he played an essential part in providing a platform for their eventual promotion to the big time.
The repeated characteristic of Dean Smith’s managerial campaigns is his tendency to be picked off by bigger fish (with no disrespect intended to Brentford who were of course above Villa when Smith joined us), after solid and successful tenures at the helm of his former clubs.
When we ask ‘has Smith taken us as far as he can?’ the only logical answer is a resounding ‘no.’ I’m sure Smith, and most sane Villa fans, in an ideal world would see the boyhood fan retire at the club after winning us plenty of plaudits and silverware. In modern football this dream is of course complicated by finances, competition, injuries and pure bad luck - but the least Dean Smith deserves after lifting us from the Championship mire is time, support and investment from both fans' attitudes and owners' purse strings.
Will our attack manage to reach pre-Grexit potency?
Last season Villa managed to bag themselves a respectable 55 goals, 7 less than free scoring Leeds but 8 more than Everton, who actually managed to finish above us. Mr. Jack Grealish (aka he who shall not be named) chipped in with 6 of these goals directly, raising to 16 involvements with assists accounted for. With Grealish an absentee in the 13 game run between a 0-0 draw with Brighton on 13th February and a 3-2 loss to Palace on 16th May, Villa only managed to muster 13 goals, a rate nowhere near good enough to compete at a high level in the Premier League. It is no doubt that Dean Smith and Johan Lange would have spent their summers wondering how to fill in the goal threat gap left by Grealish’ absence.
Villa fans have some reason to be positive already. In our first 3 games the team have managed to score 5 goals in 3 games, albeit 2 of these coming in a devastating opening day loss.
Whilst Leon Bailey, as a relatively untested entity, should be challenged to achieve Grealish-like influence and threat at his peak, and Emi Buendia’s cracker against Brentford showed us the flair and technique he is capable of, it will be Danny Ings who we should look to to raise Villa’s attacking potential to new heights. Whilst Barkley was a divisive figure at Villa, last season it was his attacking partnership with Grealish that spearheaded our most impressive results such as our 3-0 Arsenal win, 1-0 Leicester victory, and of course the famous Liverpool rout. For Villa to simply match last season’s 55 goal output, this season Buendia and Bailey will be required to link up with the flair and power displayed by Grealish and Barkley at their best. Watkins’ goal threat made him a stalwart last season, and as one of the first names on the team sheet I expect Smith to utilise him alongside Ings whenever possible this season.
Ing’s acrobatic scorcher against Newcastle gave Villa fans a glimpse of the spectacular offerings the former Southampton man holds, but it might actually be the less spectacular side of the striker that will give Villa the boost the team requires. Whilst Ings’ 57 Premier League goals contain a few beauties, such as an ornate flick and volley vs Tottenham last season, a clinical ability to ruthlessly dispatch the simple chances is what makes the forward such a key asset.
In 143 Premier League games Ings has missed just 31 big chances - an average of 0.2 per game. Everton’s Calvert-Lewin, a Premier League target man with a similar style to Ings, misses an average of 0.3 big chances per game, and another peer, Patrick Bamford of Leeds, fluffs 0.35 big chances per match. Whilst these disparities in clinical ability may seem negligible, it’s important to remember that every missed chance from a forward is a missed opportunity to positively influence a team performance. When you consider the fact that Southampton created just 39 big chances last season, 20 less than Villa’s 59, it becomes apparent that the sky really is the limit in terms of Ing’s hitting the back of the net on a regular basis. With the ever prolific Watkins banging in goals alongside Ings, and the potential threat of Buendia and Bailey tearing up opposition defences (not to mention the solid bench options of Traore and El Ghazi), it would seem that Villa should be in a more than healthy position to attack the Premier League.
Is the team prepared for a Martinez-less future at some point?
The recent reports of Atletico Madrid’s interest in Emi Martinez will have put the wind up many Villa fans. The Villa and Fantasy Premier League hero has been a stand out performer of the past year, and he has become synonymous with Villa’s growth from Premier League strugglers to respected mid-table opposition.
At the time of writing Jed Steer is yet to take the sticks against Chelsea for the game on Sunday 11th, however this promises to be a fascinating glimpse into the character and discipline of Martinez’ understudy.
Last season Villa’s defence held up well. With the 7th least goals conceded as a team, and Martinez only beaten by Chelsea’s Mendy and City’s Ederson to the golden glove, a gritty resolve was felt throughout the season. In 1-0 wins vs Everton, Southampton, and Leeds, Villa dug in deep, and despite these matches providing painfully tense moments for the fans, it is undeniable that Martinez, Mings, Konsa, Cash and Targett (as well as Kourtney Hause on occasion) more than earned their crust.
Villa’s defense has started this season in uncomfortably porous fashion. With 4 goals conceded in a paltry 3 games, scenes of the abject capitulation against Watford and the soft defending from Brentford’s second phase set piece will have provided Dean Smith with an enormous headache. John Terry’s rapid departure occurred in mysteriously abrupt circumstances, and sensationalist media reports that he’d ‘told Grealish to leave Villa’ indicated the possible angst Villa may have felt at his departure. Before we overreact to Terry’s departure and the defense’ dodgy start to the season it pays to consider a moment two seasons ago. After conceding a devastating Theo Walcott equaliser against Everton, relegation looked to be more than likely. It was a big ask to head to Arsenal practically needing a win to stay up, and as every Villa fan will fondly remember, the win came via an incredible low volley from Trezeguet against Martinez, his future teammate. Whilst everybody remembers the moment the ball hit the net, it is just as important that Villa constricted the East Londoners to not a single shot on target. In a season where only bottom team Norwich conceded more goals than Villa, it is hugely significant that our defenders, keeper, and indeed the whole team managed to muster the resolve that would ultimately provide a platform for Premier League survival. It could be said that our defense overachieved last season. Although Mings, Konsa, Targett, and Cash were excellent for many games, it has to be remembered that Martinez made a jaw dropping 142 saves, third only to the relegated Ramsdale of Sheffield United and Johnstone of West Brom.
A common line from the end of this season’s transfer window was the desperation for a defensive midfielder. At points, Bissouma, McKennie, and Witsel were all touted as possible reinforcements for the middle of the park, understandable after our midfield looked at various times terrible or non-existent against Watford. If we examine our current midfield roster, McGinn is a cult hero at Villa Park for obvious reasons. The man doesn’t have an off button on the football pitch and he’ll rarely go 90 minutes without driving at the opposition at least once or twice, even if the team is under the cosh. Douglas Luiz can be a frustrating figure - whilst capable of a dominating midfield showing (every once in a while topping it off with a whip into the top corner) he’s just as capable of looking somewhat unfocused, giving away pointless fouls and wild long passes. Marvelous Nakamba can possess Kante-like ability to break up play and protect the defence at his best, something he displayed against Kante’s employees Chelsea at the tail end of last season, but our well named Zimbabwean is also capable of misplacing 5 5 yard passes in 5 minutes. Whilst Morgan Sanson has been unlucky not to have joined the team in the best form, and has suffered from cruel injury, it is somewhat unlikely that he will be Villa’s midfield saviour the fans seem to want. The long and short of whether Villa can keep a tight ship at the back without Martinez isn’t about whether it is him or Steer in goal, it’s not about whether our defenders can keep solid at the back, and it’s not about whether we can bring in a new defensive midfielder at some point - the reason we managed our impressive defensive showing at the back last season is because the entire team pressed as a unit and gave opposition defences plenty of their own problems. If we can keep that attitude this season the team will be able to beat anyone on their day.
Are Edens’ and Sawiris’ UCL plans realistic?
The last time Villa finished in the Premier League top 4 it was 1993, the league’s inaugural season and the team managed a second-place finish behind Man Utd. A measure of just how long ago that was is the fact that Nigel Spink, a Champions League winner all the way back in 1982, was a goalkeeper option alongside Michael Oakes and Mark Bosnich. Fast forward 30 odd years and Villa have finished in both halves of the table many times, been relegated, and returned to the big time - so what’s next? Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris are insistent that the true hallmark of success for this Villa team is a return to the Champions League after many long years, but this ambition is likely to attract some rightful skepticism from fans. The only two teams that could truly be said to have broken into the top 4 competition in the past two decades are Chelsea and Man City. These teams have very specific DNA that has led to such illustrious achievements. Whilst Chelsea were indeed pumped with copious amounts of capital from Abramovic’s pocket, it is not true that they simply sprouted success from nowhere. In the 7 seasons leading up to Abramovic’s takeover Chelsea never once failed to finish in the top 6 and they actually did finish in the top 4 twice in that period. Man City, although enjoying a meteoric and relentless march to success, did it with by far the richest owners in the league - although Edens and Sawiris aren’t exactly strapped for cash very few teams can compete with Sheik Mansour, a man who has the backing of almost an entire country behind him.
Looking at what’s realistic in terms of what Villa could achieve in the coming seasons, and you must remember where we are coming from. If you were to reel up the average match highlights from a Bruce-era game, the play on show would strike today's Villa fans as unrecognisable from Dean Smith’s brand of football. It was not too long ago that Neil Taylor, Elphick, Adomah and Kodjia were considered the beating heart and core of the team, and not one of those players currently ply their trade in the top flight. The pure strength of the current Premier League top 4 is truly daunting. Teams inhabit the top end of the table with a dizzying array of world class talent in their ranks. Whilst we rightfully sing the praises of McGinn, Mings, and Konsa, you have to remember that the likes of Pogba, Lukaku, Ederson, and Salah have Premier League, Champions League and international titles banging around their trophy cabinets - often bringing with them such successes before they even joined their current clubs. It is a brutal reality that many of these players see Villa as nothing more than a mid-table team who they have a good chance of scoring against, keeping a clean sheet against etc. It is down to Dean Smith, the team, and the owners to change the attitude and DNA of the entire club to make us a team who are truly feared by the rest of the Premier League. Looking at the history of Villa there is no reason at all why we should be aiming for anything lower than the top end of the table. If the team of 1971, who finished 4th in the 3rd division, had not demanded the absolute best from themselves, their successors would not have gone on to win the Champions League just 11 years later. It might seem rash to imagine Villa playing against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in 2025, but it has to be remembered that the current regime at the club has overlooked a slow but steady upward trajectory of the club’s fortunes. God knows where that trajectory will take the club at its highest point, but history suggests that the best eras of football come from high expectations and total belief in long term success.
Are we heading back towards a reputation as a ‘selling club?’
This is a question whose importance is impossible to undervalue. Examining the DNA of some of England’s most prosperous clubs can lead to a few uncomfortable truths for a Villa fan. Would Chelsea be where they are now had Lampard and Terry headed off to Man Utd? Would Guardiola be attacking the Champions League and total domestic dominance had Silva gone to the greener pastures of Real Madrid? Whilst it is impossible to truly answer these questions with anything other than pure specultation, it is clear that the roots of success are not born in the letting go of generational talent. Perhaps the most admirable Villa fans when it comes to the departure of Jack Grealish are the ones who simply wished him well and let him be on his way, but I can’t help but sympathise with the tribe of fans who feel embittered by the nature of his exit. Branding Grealish’ move to City ‘Grexit’ feels apt in its divisiveness and the way it brutally exposes the difference in the attitudes and expectations of Villa’s fanbase. So why do some teams manage to hold on to their best talent as they build for the future? There is no simple answer. In Chelsea’s case a degree of pre-Abramovic promise likely helped. Although the situation seems somewhat precarious, Spurs have managed to keep a hold of Kane, a truly premium striker, whilst returning league finishes strikingly similar to pre 2004 Chelsea, and what’s more they have persuaded the brilliant Son Min Heung to pen a brand new deal till 2025 (surely the year of Villa’s UCL breakthrough.) If Villa had been regularly finishing in the Europa League with Champions League highlights to boot, the Grealish saga may have had a different conclusion, but as I’m sure many fans will be thinking reading this, it’s time for Villa to look to the future rather than the ‘what ifs?’ It is encouraging that Villa seem to have a steady core of top flight quality players for the first time in nigh on a decade: Mings is a captain that many premier league rivals would happily welcome through the door, and it is more than laudable that the man managed to put in some excellent Euro performances in the full knowledge that his replacement by Harry Maguire was totally inevitable. Watkins has an impressive goal record, and his all round play is capable of turning any game in his team’s favour. McGinn, beyond his cult status, is one of the most determined and hardworking players in the entire Premier League. Whilst it is encouraging that this crop of players get on with their job without any real talks of imminent moves away, it is almost more promising that the likes of Danny Ings, Leon Bailey, and Emi Buendia have decided that we are a club worthy of their prime years as top professionals.
By the time this goes up readers may well be reeling from a defeat at the hands of Chelsea on Saturday the 11th, but all the same I truly believe that Villa will press on to the season with promise, resilience and hopefully one or two cracking wins.
My first trip to Villa park was a 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth which basically relegated us. As fans let’s be thankful that we have a team we can be proud to cheer on, and let’s enjoy the season - it’s going to be a bumpy ride!