The Good Bad and Ugly of Dean Smith’s Three-Year Anniversary
By Phil Shaw
Has it been three years already? Wow…
Time flies when you are on the emotional rollercoaster that Dean Smith’s Villa tenure has been to date.
Let’s look at the Good, Bad and Ugly of it all…
Three years ago, most realistic Villa fans could only dream of the position they are in now, and that’s a fact.
Taking over an unbalanced squad inherited from Steve Bruce and Roberto Di Matteo, Dean Smith had to get Villa’s season back on track.
While we won’t know what was actually said and done behind closed doors, Smith managed to get the expensively assembled squad playing like their transfer fees warranted.
Shape, balance, a more recognisable brand of football and coherent tactics all followed, but Smith’s way with players has been understated.
It was summed up by Jack Grealish, talking after his move to Man City, Grealish said,
“He come in, and he pulled me on his first day, and he says ‘So you were gonna sign for Spurs?’, I was like ‘yeah, nearly’. He was like, ‘£25m?’ — I think we were like nine games in — ‘nine games in now, look’. On the board it said no goals, one assist.”
Smith reminding Grealish, that despite all the surrounding sycophants, he had actually done nothing in the Championship, which was probably the catalyst for the player and the team.
The difficult winter that followed Grealish’s first shin injury cast doubts, but his return and Smith’s decision to give him the captaincy turned out to be a masterstroke.
The rest of that season is folklore.
In the Premier League, Smith has continued to improve players. Grealish reached the value of 100 million pounds in moving to Manchester City.
Ollie Watkins and Tyrone Mings are England squad regulars, and there is a conveyor belt of players ready to be improved at every level within the Villa ecosystem. All of them should benefit from the right word at the right time, like Grealish did.
On the pitch, there have been some fantastic performances and steady improvement in league position since the first pandemic lockdown.
This period could be what Dean Smith will be remembered for.
After a horror show away at Leicester City on 9th March 2020 finished in a four goal loss, the league got suspended until 17th June 2020.
Over this period Smith improved the team’s defence and when the league resumed for the final ten games, Villa achieved survival on the final day against West Ham.
From that 17th placed finish, an 11th followed, and Villa would be expected to break the top half this season to maintain year-on-year improvement.
If that’s achieved, the good times should continue.
Of course no manager spends three years at a club without some bad times and Dean Smith has had a few.
The low points of the Smith time stick in the memory because of the heroics of promotion.
Every low point felt like it was putting the purgatory of the Championship years to waste.
I think the lowest point for me came away to Watford. Smith started Henri Lansbury and Jota and was rewarded accordingly.
One goal down at half-time, Watford had a man sent off and still managed to add two further goals. If I’d been Purslow that evening, I’d have been tempted to relieve Smith of his duties.
Other people may have different low points where they questioned Smith in that first season.
The home mauling by Manchester City, where he started Danny Drinkwater.
The away game at Everton, where El Ghazi missed from inches…
The Engels howler against Spurs…
The away game at Leicester, the home and away games against Southampton…
The list from that first season goes on and on.
Each one of those awful performances brought with them amplified emotions from the threat of a return to the Championship.
In the second season, the poor displays of Leeds and Southampton at home drew the ire, because Aston Villa had shown what they were capable off against Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester.
Because Villa fans knew how good a Smith team could be, they wouldn’t accept anything less.
After Christmas, games just seemed to ebb away and the promising position Villa were in, faded to 11th place.
It didn’t help when Smith stuck rigidly to a Grealish based formation even when the same player was out of action for months.
This intransigence coupled with ludicrous injury updates would become a stick for the #smithout brigade to use against him, and none can argue that it wasn’t self-inflicted.
Use code AFFKB30 below for 30% off Villa Shirts*
The ugly thing about the Dean Smith tenure has been a sense that Smith, isn’t at the level, as a manager, that Villa want to achieve.
Modern football fans want instant success, and the easiest thing to change about a club is the manager.
Because Smith is evolving with Villa, he hasn’t the previous trophies and gravitas to fall back on.
He isn’t Carlo Ancelotti, who failed miserably with Everton and goes off to Real Madrid. Smith has always been under the radar with the media and as a result, he doesn’t get traction with fans that fall for clickbait from Talksport and others.
There always seems to be an excuse when things go well and no mitigating circumstances when they fail.
When the Villa defence tightened up, it was apparently because of John Terry, when Villa scores from a set piece it’s now because of Austin MacPhee. When Villa stayed up, it was all due to Grealish.
You get the picture, the only constant in all this has been Smith, so while he deserves warranted critique, he also should be commended when he gets it right.
Villa, are far from the ugly mess that they have been for most of the last decade and if you think Smith has nothing to do with it, you’re living in the clouds.
He’s made mistakes, his injury updates can be works of fiction, and he often doesn’t play the formation or make the changes common-sense demand.
Yet, he’s also beaten five out of the Super League six clubs in the past year, reached a cup final, won at Old Trafford, whacked Liverpool 7-2, and has assembled a squad good enough for the top half of the Premier League.
The season’s ahead will judge his potential.
He’s a work-in-progress, but one that has given Villa much hope in recent times.