It has been far from a happy new year for Aston Villa. Back-to-back 3-0 defeats have chiselled away at the optimism that Dean Smith’s initial impact had built. Villa fans, unfortunately, hold somewhat of a reputation for getting on the manager’s back at the earliest opportunity. But is it time we took a proper look at our squad?
There have already been tweets flying about saying that Smith is the wrong appointment for the club. I even saw a couple of polls asking whether Smith should be in or out. Ludicrousy of the highest order, of course.
It’s not Smith’s squad
With the January transfer window currently open, the focus is on the state of the squad right now. The last few results have only heightened this and suddenly there is a flurry of panic in regards to needing to overhaul the squad.
A common theme from supporters after the Wigan debacle was that the squad simply wasn’t good enough in its current form. That these were still Steve Bruce’s players and that Smith needs time to bring in the players that he wants. A fair enough point on the face of it.
But wasn’t one of the main points of sacking Bruce due to the fact that we should’ve been doing better with the talent and quality of players that he had to work with?
There is a discrepancy somewhere along the line for me. Either the group of players are good enough, or they aren’t.
Certainly, the players can’t be deemed good enough for one man to succeed but for another man, the majority of them need replacing. It doesn’t make sense.
Before we go any further, this is absolutely not a pro-Bruce piece. Nor is it anti-Smith.
But I do think it’s important that the squad is assessed is a fair manner. It’s either good enough, or it isn’t. That shouldn’t change based on who the manager is to fit an agenda.
The reaction to a loss that all the players are suddenly rubbish is ridiculous. There is a dip in form. The reality is that Villa has a group of players that, the majority of which, would walk into any other team in this league.
Tammy Abraham is an England international and banging in goals. John McGinn has a tenacity which we haven’t had in our midfield for years couple with superb technique. James Chester has been a lynchpin for us since he joined and is capable of playing at a higher level. Lovre Kalinic is no mug, currently occupying the number 1 shirt for a strong Croatia outfit. That in itself is the spine of a superb team at this level. And I haven’t even mentioned the jewel in the crown; Jack Grealish.
Axel Tuanzebe has been a huge loss since his injury. Jonathan Kodjia is a proven 20 goal a season striker when played through the middle. Anwar El Ghazi has added a work ethic to his trickery and skills. All of these players are more than good enough at this level.
As indicated with Tuanzebe, and particularly Grealish, injuries have highlighted the real problem. The squad wasn’t equipped to cope with severe losses. And recently we have been incredibly unlucky with injuries.
Key men being injured will affect any team though. Clubs seldom have a like for like backup for their star players, especially at this level. Most teams, even the majority of Premier League teams, simply do not carry the calibre of player they would like as back up options.
For me, Grealish’s absence is a problem that needs a solution other than playing the same system and hoping it still works. Grealish is unique. The way he draws space, carries the ball and generally orchestrates the play isn’t something that everyone can do. For me, Smith needs to find an alternative way of playing until Grealish returns. And if Villa doesn’t achieve promotion this season, you can bet your house that Smith will have to find a more permanent solution to the Grealish shaped hole. A contingency plan needs to be worked on now.
Where the squad does fail is defensively. Bruce left the squad in a woeful state. Short on quality and numbers. Luckily, Tommy Elphick has returned to bolster the ranks (and clearly should never have been allowed to leave in the first place). Kortney Hause‘s addition is welcome but he badly needs games judging by his showing at Wigan.
Left back is also an issue. Neil Taylor is decent at times. His Wigan performance was shocking, but generally, under Smith, he has been ok. Long term he will never effectively contribute to Smith’s style of play though. Whilst Alan Hutton, either at left back or right back, simply isn’t good enough.
Perhaps that is more the point – really, there are only a handful of players that the majority of fans would agree aren’t good enough. At the moment, Ahmed Elmohamady, Conor Hourihane and Birkir Bjarnason are coming in for a lot of criticism. And probably deservedly so. But I’d argue these particular players are out of form rather than not being good enough. I think they all contribute overall and are certainly able squad players at the very least.
For me, realistically, Hutton stands out as one who does need to be let go. Glenn Whelan is probably another. We’ve seen the best of Mile Jedinak now also. It is no coincidence that these are the three oldest members of the squad.
Which highlights an important point; we do have a lot of players around the 28-31 age range. This is also a by-product of Bruce’s over-reliance on what he saw as experience. Whilst those ages aren’t particularly over the hill, Smith will unquestionably look to lower than average over the next couple of transfer windows. At Brentford, he oversaw a squad with an average age of just over 23 years old. Ours is currently nearer 27. It’s a big difference. And for Smith’s style of play, it’s necessary to have those younger legs.
In my opinion, in the immediate instance, the squad is certainly good enough to earn a top 6 finish. The incredible performances away at Derby and Middlesbrough back that statement up. One thing Bruce did do well at was attracting certain players that we’re actually punching above our weight in bringing to the club in our present situation. And those games showed that the players are more than capable.
We’ve gutted out squads before and it doesn’t work. There needs to be a transition over time. Of course, Smith needs to address the defensive issues and strengthen this area as a priority. But this needs to be balanced with a gradual rebuild of the rest of the squad to make it his own whilst at the same time making the players currently at his disposal work.
We’ve seen plenty of positives from Smith so far. The football, for the most part, has been much better. Injuries to key men have contributed massively to this poor run of form though. And that would be the same for any team. But with just one win in the last eight games, Smith isn’t exempt from criticism. Grealish’s return will undoubtedly coincide with an upturn in form. Until then, it’s down to Smith to find a way of coping. Whether that’s giving Callum O’Hare a sustained run in the team in Jack’s absence, finding a way to get more out of Conor Hourihane or some other solution.
I stand by the point that we felt the players we had should’ve been performing better under Bruce. Whilst they may not be Smith’s men, we can’t suddenly write them all off as not being good enough. Because a few months ago, we were all sure they were.