Aston Villa's turnaround under Dean Smith and the plans for the future

In an exclusive interview with Dean Smith, he explains the change of mood at Aston Villa, the reasons for the club's recruitment, and the ambitions for the season ahead. Watch Aston Villa vs Liverpool live on Sky Sports from 7pm on Sunday; kick-off 7.15pm

Dean Smith has turned things around at Aston Villa
Image: Dean Smith explains the turnaround at Aston Villa and the club's recruitment policy

Aston Villa's cup defeat to Stoke on Thursday night ended a run of eight games without defeat either side of the break, but it will take more than that to put a stop to the newfound optimism surrounding the club. The mood has changed at Villa Park and everyone senses it.

Survival was secured on the final day of last season. Jack Grealish, club captain and star player, signed a new contract. Ross Barkley has since become the fifth addition of the summer following the arrival of new sporting director Johan Lange.

Positivity is in the air again at Villa Park and not before time.

Even the little things are a source of joy now. The beauty of John McGinn, fit and firing once more, bewitching Fulham with a roulette turn. The always satisfying sight of an academy graduate make his Premier League debut as Jacob Ramsey did that day.

Speaking to Dean Smith as he prepares his team to face Liverpool on Sunday, he sums up this new atmosphere. "Games do not come harder than this, but it is a great opportunity to see where we are at with the additions that we have made," he tells Sky Sports.

"There is certainly that feel-good factor about the place at the moment. The quality of signings that we have added to the side that retained Premier League status last season is exciting. What is there not to be excited about when you are bringing in players like Emi Martinez, Matty Cash, Ross Barkley, Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traore?"

Villa's recruitment upon their return to the Premier League last summer came under severe scrutiny once the team began to struggle. The turnover of players was significant. A whole new team was signed. Six of last season's signings had not only never made an appearance in English football before but had never played in one of Europe's top five leagues before.

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Those six alone cost in excess of £70m.

Villa's then sporting director Suso was replaced in June and it is to Smith's great credit that he refuses to criticise what came before, defending the work that was done alongside chief executive Christian Purslow in the aftermath of the club's promotion at Wembley.

"I just think it was the circumstances when we got promoted," he explains. "Any team that is promoted through the play-offs has the shortest time to get a squad together.

"We were in a position where we had a lot of contracts coming to an end and we wanted to go for a younger, fresher, more energetic team. That is how we saw Aston Villa going forward so we had to make an awful lot of changes and bring in lots of players in a month.

"For any sporting director that is tough. Suso and Christian did a very good job in the time they had, but there was always going to be an adaptation period."

Lange, a highly-respected figure thanks to his work at FC Copenhagen, has since come in as Suso's replacement. Rob Mackenzie, formerly of Leicester and Tottenham, has joined him as the club's new head of recruitment and there has been a notable shift of emphasis.

All five of the new signings this summer have experience of English football. The expectation is that that they will adapt more quickly and the early signs are promising. Watkins scored on his debut. So too did Traore. Martinez marked his first appearance with a penalty save and a clean sheet, while new right-back Cash is already emerging as a fan favourite.

Ross Barkley 0:40
Aston Villa's head coach describes Ross Barkley as a big signing for the club

"It was about fine-tuning the squad with quality additions who do not need any period of adaptation. These were all players who could come in and hit the ground running. We were able to do that in this window because we have got the base of the squad already now.

"We always felt that if we retained our Premier League status, we could be more strategic in our planning this year. That is what we have managed to do between myself, Johan and Christian. We have got our targets in and we believe they make us stronger now."

The signing of Barkley has certainly caused a stir.

"Ross choosing to come here is a coup for the club," says Smith. "He is a great addition to the squad. The fact that he has come here to show what he can do and get regular minutes to drive himself into that Euros squad at the end of the season."

At 26, Barkley is still regarded as a work in progress so it says something for the relative inexperience of this Villa squad that he is arguably the club's most experienced player. He is the only member of the squad to have made more than 200 Premier League appearances.

Ross Barkley adds much needed Premier League experience at Aston Villa
Image: Ross Barkley adds much needed Premier League experience at Aston Villa

"We entered the season last year and our most experienced players were Neil Taylor, Ahmed Elmohamady and Tom Heaton, who was a new signing," says Smith. "Now we are adding more experience - certainly in Ross with the experience he has had in the Premier League and the games that he has played - and that can only stand us in good stead."

Perhaps this inexperience helps to explain some of the perceived naivety to Villa's play in the early part of last season. Smith's side led late on against Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool but lost the lot. Seven defeats from nine games prior to Christmas sapped belief.

"I believe we were better than six or seven teams last season but we had so many injuries in December and that knocked the wind out of our sails," acknowledges the boss.

When lockdown came in March, Villa had just lost a Wembley cup final and had three months to dwell on a 4-0 defeat to Leicester that left them mired in the relegation zone.

It could have broken them. Instead, it saved their season.

"We needed that lockdown," says Smith.

"We walked off that pitch at Leicester and it felt like we had bottomed out. We needed to hit that reset button. We reflected, we reset, and we have come out of it the other side."

Villa's season, perhaps even Smith's future at the club, hinged on sorting out the defence. They finished the campaign having conceded 67 goals - the most of any team bar Norwich - but that only tells part of the tale. There was a dramatic improvement upon the restart.

The expected-goals model shows that Villa were giving up more chances than any other team in the Premier League prior to lockdown. In the mini-season that followed, these underlying numbers suggest that Villa had the fourth best defence in the league.

"Certainly defensively we look stronger now. It is not just the back four and the goalkeeper, it is the whole team. The work ethic of the whole team makes the job easier."

The signing of Cash was made with this idea in mind. He had been a midfielder at Nottingham Forest until converted to right-back by Sabri Lamouchi last season but the statistics indicate that he is a natural defender - blocking more crosses than anyone else in the Championship last season. Smith was aware of this detail before signing off on the deal.

Matty Cash blocked the most crosses of any player in the Championship last season
Image: Matty Cash blocked the most crosses of any player in the Championship last season

Cash is already helping to make a difference. In beating Fulham, Villa secured back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League for the first time in almost five years. It was what they had been working for. Ezri Konsa could be heard yelling for his team to keep that clean sheet when the players emerged for the second half. The culture has changed.

"Go and enjoy defending," says Smith. "It is a phrase I use regularly with the players. Enjoy keeping clean sheets. I believe that we have players who are doing that now."

The next step was to ensure that Villa could hurt teams at the other end.

"As a head coach you are always looking for balance," adds Smith. "With the players that we had out last season, we felt that we had to be a little bit more pragmatic after the restart and that worked well for us defensively so we wanted to continue with that structure this season. But we had to find more of a balance with more attacking football.

"The additions will help with that."

One of Villa's biggest problems throughout last season was that they did not pose enough of a threat on the counter-attack. Having sought to dominate the ball in the Championship, there were too many games in the Premier League where their inability to break at pace left them no outlet when the opposition were winning the battle for possession.

Only Norwich scored fewer goals from fast breaks.

The signing of Watkins, in particular, changes that. At Fulham, the record signing from Brentford made more high-intensity sprints than any other player on the pitch. Against Sheffield United, it was his run in behind that resulted in John Egan being sent off.

"Ollie certainly gives us a different dimension," says Smith. "His work rate and his work ethic is exceptional. Very quickly he has become appreciated by the players."

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How the Villa boss would love for Watkins to find that space in behind when up against Liverpool's high defensive line at Villa Park on Sunday evening. Is he picturing it already?

"I will certainly be picturing it but there are a lot of top coaches here and in Europe who have tried to exploit it. They have got top-class defenders but it is a great challenge for us."

The challenge for Aston Villa is to improve on last season. If they can stay clear of the bottom six, they will secure this famous old club's best league finish in a decade. Belief is growing that they are finally well set - on and off the pitch - to make that happen.

"As well as the new players, there are the players that we have coming back. John McGinn was injured last season really. I know he played the last 10 games but he was still coming back from that injury. We have got Tom Heaton coming back, Wesley coming back.

"There are exciting times ahead, we believe, but we have got to keep our feet firmly on the ground and make sure that we don't get complacent. We were not satisfied with where we finished. We want to do better this time. Hopefully, we are on an upward trajectory now."

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