Restoring Aston Villa’s Premier League status, setting a new club-record winning run and leading the club to a League Cup final was all in a whirlwind year and a half for Dean Smith.
Though after falling to a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United six games into the Premier League’s Project Restart, the writing was on the wall for Smith’s Villa side who plunged deeper into relegation trouble.
It was fast becoming a first top-flight season to forget for Smith, but as the relegation picture became clearer, fixtures were running out and Villa’s gaffer knew there was no margin for error as the final four fixtures of the season approached – it was an opportunity to produce a truly great escape.
“I have never got too high or too low on defeats throughout my career,” Dean Smith told Sky Sports before searching for his first win since January as Villa welcomed Crystal Palace in early July.
Villa fans weren’t expecting to take any points from a tricky run of games that included Chelsea, Wolves, United and Liverpool, and whilst Villa had acquitted themselves well at Anfield, not one forward or midfielder at the club had scored a goal for nine games, the worst goal drought in any Villa side in 25 years.
Amidst Villa’s perilous months prior to and after lockdown, Smith remained the eternal optimist, he never backed down nor shirked responsibility even if only the most confident of Villa fans were left dreaming of top-flight survival.
Seven points separated Villa and Watford who sat above the dotted line come July 12 and only a win against a bang out of form Palace side would do for Villa side so desperate for the three points that could alter a whole season’s fortunes.
A vital win over Arsenal followed a late blow at Goodison Park before Jack Grealish chose the perfect time to notch his first goal in 14 Premier League games at the London Stadium to seal Villa’s top-flight status on a dramatic final day.
Dean Smith’s management second to none
Calm and honest through the toughest part of his professional career, Smith’s man management rubbed off on his players. Villa managed to become the first Premier League team to survive relegation having fallen seven points off the pace with four games left to play.
“It is so important that my demeanour is consistent for the players. The moment they see a little bit of panic or lack of belief in my eyes then I think it is a downward spiral from there.
“One big result could turn things.”
Smith was keen to dismiss the notion that his players were losing heart ahead of the most important two weeks of the club’s recent history, packed with play-off heartache, play-off ecstasy and a cup final to boot.
“The belief is there, that’s for sure,” he said.
“I can see it in their eyes when they step out to play. I can see it on the pitch and I can see it in the meetings we’re having. There’s definitely a belief.
“Our job is to get lifted again. Keep the faith because there is a lot of belief in that dressing room and we are still working hard.
“How are we going to get out of it? By fighting, by working hard. By being as solid as we have been in the first few games and then hopefully showing a little more quality in the final third.”
Villa hadn’t taken a single point from the last 15 up for grabs before the Premier League was suspended back in March, and during lockdown, Smith had to contend with plotting a great escape without seeing his players on a day-to-day basis and being away from Bodymoor Heath to establish tactical plans.
Smith’s dedication and application to the job was never in question after his father, Ron Smith passed during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. In previous interviews, Smith had spoken of the illness’ impact and the fact his dad didn’t know he was Villa manager.
Smith said: “Timing is never good to lose a parent but he is probably in a better place now because he hadn’t been well for a long time. It was one of those things you have to deal with.”
Dealing with a personal bereavement before feeling the pressure of keeping his boyhood club in the Premier League is something we can all admire. Dean’s attention was never swayed as he totally committed himself to keeping Villa in the league he got them into.
Smith told the Daily Mail: “I lost my dad to coronavirus and I’ve got a ‘Holte Enders In The Sky’ badge on in honour of him and he will be looking down on us that’s for sure.
“My family watched it together and they are immensely proud. It’s an unbelievable achievement, more than being promoted last season.
“People had us relegated after we lost 4-0 at Leicester in March before the suspension but we have used the lockdown well. We couldn’t keep doing what we were doing, we had to get better defensively and get fitter. They now look Premier League players and it now looks like there’s a Premier League culture. It takes time.”
Identifying and fixing issues on the pitch
Smith knew he had to attend to the many weaknesses that had stumped Villa’s progress this term, with a set-pieces a particular Achilles heel which coincided with Villa’s poor defensive record until the league’s suspension.
Villa went into the lockdown having conceded 56 goals at an average of exactly two per game – by a long way the worst defensive record in the Premier League.
“We were conceding too many chances and too many goals,” Smith said when re-evaluating his side’s form pre-lockdown.
“We had to come up with a plan to stop that and we have done that.
“During the lockdown, we did video sessions with the players. We did group sessions. We got their input. I certainly had a vision of how I saw us moving forward and the players worked hard in that mini-pre-season that we had.
“We worked on best practice. We looked at the two best teams in the league, Manchester City and Liverpool. The togetherness, the team shift when they lose the ball, the counter-pressing.
“We had to get better at recovering the ball back if we lost it and, if we could not, making sure we got numbers back behind the ball and forcing the opposition one way.”
Having taken just one win in the first two months of the Premier League season, Villa were in for a rude awakening after plotting a bullish assault during pre-season.
Chief executive Christian Purslow was planning to take the top-flight by storm.
“Dean thinks we should win every game of football, he thinks if they score three, we’ll score four.
“Be ready guys, he’s not going away to Manchester City and try to play for a 0-0.”
Too “gung-ho” and “naive” in approaching games, Smith knew his open style and attractive brand of football wasn’t going to harvest the results necessary to remain in the Premier League and credit where credit is due, he identified and rectified his side’s faults.
Since hosting Sheffield United on the opening day of Project Restart, only Manchester United and Wolves had conceded fewer chances until Villa finally secured their Premier League place last week.
The league’s indefinite suspension also allowed Smith to take a step back and devise plans to improve defensive frailties and set-piece flaws, both in attaching and defensive phases. Jack Grealish has won more fouls than any other player this season and in any other Premier League campaign before it, but Villa’s goal count from set-plays was considerably low.
After lockdown, five of Villa’s seven goals were scored within the same attacking phase that proceeded either a free kick or corner, highlighting how well Smith coached certain tactics to his players without completely working on routines at Bodymoor Heath.
Arm around the shoulder for key players
Whilst Villa returned to training only weeks before the Premier League got back underway, Smith, Richard O’Kelly and John Terry would join online meetings to review performance and connect with players like Douglas Luiz and Trezeguet who hadn’t adjusted to life in Birmingham as first hoped.
Both players were signed with good reputations abroad, but Villa fans had been struggling to see what either could offer in the fight for survival, though with the man management of Smith and the comfortable environment of behind closed doors stadiums, both thrived to become integral members of a thin Villa squad.
Never had Smith chosen to hang a player out to dry this season, nor disrupt what is a sensitive dressing room full of inexperienced Premier League footballers. Instead he nurtured their talent and brought the best out of two players in particular who’d been written off before the new year.
Ezri Konsa also came into his own in time for the restart – a player Smith labeled as having “no ceiling” to his potential. Partnering Tyrone Mings, the two were both assured and comfortable in forming a partnership that took three clean sheets in the post-lockdown period.
He, alongside Grealish and Luiz were the first three players on a team sheet that had been chopped and changed throughout the season as Smith was still learning the qualities of his squad. Finding his best eleven was a timely benefit for Smith who used lockdown purely to Aston Villa’s eventual advantage.
Whilst Smith never doubted Villa’s ability to remain in the top-flight, club owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens also remained confident that the coach they appointed in October 2018 could guide this newly formed side to safety.
Smith said: “They (Sawiris & Edens) have sent me messages to pass on to players in terms of keep up the good work, keep working hard, there is hope. We are passing those on. They’re fully behind the players & myself to maintain our Premier League status.”
Mirroring his success when he walked through the doors of Villa Park last season, Smith proved the doubters wrong and lived up to every word of the late, great Ron Saunders: “Do you want to bet against us?”
His reward after keeping Villa in the top flight against all the odds will be the full backing of the owners who were particularly impressed with how Smith coached a better defensive shape and ultimately adapted his own philosophy and recognised his wrongs to ensure the club’s survival.
Now tasked with keeping a hold of Grealish and Luiz, Villa will delve into the transfer market to bolster their squad ahead of their 26th season in the Premier League.