Aston Villa sealed promotion back to the Premier League with a 2-1 play-off final victory over Derby County on Monday, ending the Villans’ three-year stay in the Championship.
Villa will join Norwich City and Sheffield United in the English top flight in 2018/19, two teams we have already been previewing from a Fantasy perspective.
Part of our analysis has been on the tactical approach of managers Daniel Farke and Chris Wilder, so we will now turn our attention to Villa’s head coach Dean Smith before beginning a player-by-player examination of the Midlands club’s squad.
READ MORE: Our guide to Norwich City’s goalkeeper and defenders
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READ MORE: Our guide to Sheffield United’s goalkeeper and defenders
READ MORE: Our guide to Sheffield United’s midfielders and forwards
What is Smith’s background?
Born in West Bromwich in May 1971, Smith’s 16-year playing career took him to five different clubs.
It was with fourth-tier club Leyton Orient that he made 239 of his 566 league appearances and Smith’s coaching career subsequently began with the Os in 2005.
Smith served as a youth coach and assistant manager at Brisbane Road before moving on to work in Walsall’s academy set-up, graduating to caretaker manager and then permanent boss in January 2011.
The Saddlers were bottom of League One when Smith took charge but he steered them to safety by the season’s end, following that great escape up with finishes of 19th, 9th, 13th and 14th in the third tier as well as a run to the Football League Trophy Final in 2014/15.
Smith departed for Brentford in November 2015 and continued to build on his reputation for delivering attack-minded football in his three years at Griffin Park.
The Bees finished in the top half of the table on three successive occasions under Smith, who fought in the face of the west London side’s tight budget and ‘selling club’ status to get them within reach of the Championship play-offs.
The lure of a move to his boyhood club, Aston Villa, was too strong to resist and Smith replaced Steve Bruce in the Villa Park hot seat in October 2018.
The Midlands club were 15th in the Championship when Smith took over but the Villa boss guided his new club to the fringes of a play-off place by mid-December after five victories in his first eight fixtures in charge.
A mini-slump subsequently followed, with Villa winning only two of their next 14 matches, but a ten-game winning run in March and April sealed a play-off spot with two fixtures to spare.
Villa were taken to penalties by West Bromwich Albion in their play-off semi-final before Derby were seen off at Wembley.
WHAT STYLE OF FOOTBALL DOES SMITH USE?
Smith experimented with wing-backs earlier in his managerial career but the 4-1-4-1 formation he had settled on in the final months of his reign at Griffin Park has generally been used at Villa since his appointment in October 2018 – although a tweak to a 4-3-3 was seen in the play-off final.
In this system, Conor Hourihane or Glenn Whelan will sit in the deepest midfield role and drop back to support the two centre-halves – latterly loanees Tyrone Mings and Axel Tuanzebe, in the absence of the injured James Chester – as full-backs Ahmed Elmohamady and Neil Taylor bomb down the flanks.
The two other central midfielders, the influential Jack Grealish and John McGinn, are given license to push forward in the manner that Leicester City’s James Maddison and Youri Tielemans are under Brendan Rodgers.
Albert Adomah and Anwar El Ghazi have been the preferred options out wide of late, with another loanee, Tammy Abraham, spearheading the attack.
Possession-based, attacking football has been a feature of Villa’s season under Smith.
Only Norwich City and West Brom scored more Championship goals than Villa (82) in 2018/19, with 62 of the Midlands club’s strikes coming in the 34 matches that Smith oversaw (an average of 1.82 goals per match).
Villa only failed to score on five occasions with Smith at the helm and found the net in all but one of their 17 home games under the former Walsall and Brentford boss.
The Villa View’s Dan Bardell said of Smith’s approach:
“He likes his team to keep the ball on the floor, he’s an attacking manager with a set ethos of how he thinks the game should be played.
He usually goes for a ballplayer in defensive midfield rather than an enforcer.
If the game is going a certain way, like the last 10-15 minutes in the play-off final, he will change it to a 4-2-3-1 to firm things up and ask to midfielders to sit.” – Dan Bardell
An aggressive high press is another feature of Villa’s play in the Smith era, which is excellently dissected in this article from EFL Analysis.
Dan says that Villa’s starting XI has been fairly settled under Smith, although the Villans’ boss is not afraid to shake things up mid-game.
“A major positive with Smith is his use of substitutes, he generally tends to make great game-changing decisions from the bench. In general, we have had eight/nine set starters and I’m interested to see how he will act in the Premier League.” – Dan Bardell
*All statistics given are for the regulation season and exclude the three play-off matches.
HOW DOES SMITH HANDLE THE PRESS?
Dan says that Smith is a well-liked personality among the media and should provide Fantasy managers with some honest information.
“He’s a likeable guy, so it’s good. He doesn’t come on and try and b******t anyone; compared to Steve Bruce’s latter days, he is a complete breath of fresh air.
Obviously, there is a heavier media focus in the Premier League but I really think he will take it in his stride. He really talks a great game.
We are a great story with a lifelong fan as manager and lifelong fan as captain, so I expect the press to enjoy us being back.” – Dan Bardell
When it comes to the all-important team news and pre-match press conferences, Smith mercifully appears to be on the opposite end of the spectrum to the cagey/duplicitous Eddie Howe and Pep Guardiola.
“No games with Smith, what you see is what you get. I get the impression he doesn’t really believe in mind games, he tends to let the team do his talking on the pitch.” – Dan Bardell
WHERE MIGHT SMITH STRENGTHEN IN THE SUMMER AND WHICH PLAYERS ARE IN DANGER OF LOSING THEIR PLACE?
Villa were busy in the loan market last season, with five of their temporary signings featuring in the 18-man squad at Wembley in late-May.
Smith may well return for some of those loanees in the summer, either on a short-term basis again or on a permanent deal.
Dan says that Villa may look to learn from the failures of Fulham in 2018/19 after the Cottagers spent big last summer.
“Ideally, we’d get Mings, Tuanzebe and Abraham back either permanently or on loan. El Ghazi and Hause are shoo-ins to return permanently.
I’m a massive believer in continuity when you get promotion; Fulham got it all wrong. You’d want the loans back and then you’d want to be getting in three to four top-level Premier League players.
I think we will get a couple of players from the Championship, for example, Lolley from Forest or Bowen from Hull. There is talent in the EFL, the gap between the bottom seven or eight in the Premier League and the first ten places in the Championship is not that great, in my opinion.” – Dan Bardell
Defensive and attacking options on the flank seem to be where Villa need investment, while some experienced squad players will have to be replaced when their contracts expire this summer.
“We’ve a lot of squad players out of contract, I expect all of them to leave. Whelan, Jedinak, Elphick and Hutton have all been good servants in the Championship but I can’t see any of them getting renewed.
Full-back and wing are the two areas that most need addressing, assuming we get the loan players back.
I’d imagine a couple of strikers will be coming in, as well as a few wide players so it will be interesting to see who Smith wants.” – Dan Bardell
Our guide to Aston Villa continues soon with a look at their Fantasy options in defence.
Thanks again to Dan for his time in this interview.