Aston Villa have announced the appointment of 47-year-old former Brentford manager Dean Smith as the club’s new head coach, with John Terry joining in an assistant’s role and Jesus Garcia Pitarch coming in as director of football.
The capture of a manager renowned for expansive attacking football marks a major departure from his predecessor Steve Bruce, whose turgid football and bizarre tactical decisions had led Villa to just one win from his final nine league games in charge of the club.
As the first appointment of the new owners, it is unknown whether Smith – who was reportedly Villa’s third choice behind Thierry Henry and Rui Faria – will be given time, or whether instant promotion is a must.
Villa need to show patience, but in the modern game no manager can survive without a quick start. Here are five things Smith must do to hit the ground running:
1) Field players in their best – or at least correct – positions
There are many reasons why Bruce’s tenure felt aimless and many strange tactical decisions that suggest he was out of ideas, but chief among them was his odd team selections. Towards the end he had up to six of his starting 11 playing out of position and, incredibly, rarely picked a team without at least three right-backs in it.
This first point should be easy enough to fix: Smith must avoid the pitfall of putting square pegs in round holes, which means no more Mile Jedinak at centre-back, no more Alex Tanzuebe at right-back, no more Jack Grealish in left midfield, and no more shoving as many forwards onto the pitch as possible.
Villa need basic organisation and a clear strategy, something that Smith will surely work towards. His Brentford and Walsall teams were consistent in playing short-passing aesthetic football.
2) Put Jack Grealish centre stage
Aston Villa’s number ten is a very special talent, the sort that any manager should build his team around, but it is especially important in this case because Jack Grealish has long been considering a switch to Tottenham Hotspur. If he was repositioned at the beating heart of an attack-minded team, then perhaps he would stick around.
Grealish loves to dictate the tempo of the match in a free role, roaming deep to collect possession and driving the team forward with his clever one-twos and mazy dribbles. It is best not to try to contain the 22-year-old, but rather organise his team-mates around him. In theory, Smith’s expansive football – centring on high-tempo interchanges and domination of the ball – is perfectly suited to get the best out of Grealish.
However, Villa’s star player only performs when given freedom on the pitch and structure off it; the return of John Terry should help with the latter.
Watch as Dean Saunders pays tribute to Sir Doug Ellis and tells us his favourite stories from the time he played for him at Villa Park.
3) Preach patience and lower the club’s expectations
A succession of Villa owners have thrown money at the problem with a petulance and impatience reflecting the club’s disbelief at its own Championship status. This short-termism has led to extraordinary amounts of waste, a lopsided squad based on the disparate visions of several managers, and a sense that Villa are on the brink of sliding into deeper trouble.
That cycle has to end now. An important part of Smith’s job will be in interviews and press conferences, in which he must highlight the need for patience as he embarks on this new project. It will take time for his ideas to take hold, but it will be worth it: hope of a short spike of form, followed by the safety of Premier League riches, is a deeply flawed plan.
The Villa fans and the board need to give Smith time to rebuild the club organically. As head coach, Smith’s job is to dampen expectations by explaining the intricacies of the project, building a strong relationship with fans that allows for gradual improvements to be made without the instant pressure of results.
4) Find his bet XI and stick with it
Too much chopping and changing over the last few years has held the club back, and so Smith must use his first few weeks in charge to decide on some key positions. Villa need to settle on a clear number one and back four, which in time can improve Villa’s poor defensive record, and then decide which of Jonathan Kodja, Tammy Abraham, and Scott Hogan will be his trusted goalscorer.
Strikers need a run of games to get confident, while defenders rely upon mutual understanding to eliminate errors. Too much instability under Bruce undermined Villa at both ends. This is unlikely to be the case under Smith; eight Brentford players have played at least 10 of their 12 league games so far this season. Finally Villa fans will get to know who their manager likes and dislikes, which in turn should set the ball rolling for a tactical revolution.
5) Bring Hogan, Moreira, El Ghazi, and Bolasie in from the cold
Bruce never really trusted flair players. His instincts were too conservative for a technically-gifted player like Mohamed El Ghazi or even Yannick Bolasie, who has made just six substitute appearances for the club so far. Ghazi scored one and assisted one in his first two games of the season… before being inexplicably dropped. Both of these two should be given a bigger chance by Smith.
Elsewhere, issues with Orjan Nyland surely means it’s time for on-loan Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Andre Moreira to get an opportunity, while Scott Hogan is likely to benefit from being reunited with Smith. The 26-year-old, yet to play a game for Villa this season, scored 14 goals in the first half of the 2016/17 season for Brentford under Smith before leaving for Villa in January.