Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
Dean Smith exclusive: Aston Villa need one big result to turn things
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Aston Villa boss Dean Smith discusses his team's defensive work and why he believes they will stay up. Watch Liverpool versus Aston Villa live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4.15 on Sunday; kick-off is at 4.30pm
Last Updated: 05/07/20 4:25pm
“I have never got too high or too low on defeats throughout my career,” Dean Smith tells Sky Sports. “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."
The Aston Villa head coach is hoping that this big result comes against champions Liverpool on Sunday.
He cannot wait much longer. Villa's Premier League future is in the balance.
Optimism had abounded coming into the campaign. Villa were back where they belonged with a coach and a captain who understood the club and a host of exciting new players seemingly ready for the challenge.
But along the way that optimism was lost.
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Some look to the fact that Smith is still searching for a regular defensive partner for Tyrone Mings, with initial first-choice Bjorn Engels having started alongside him just once since November.
Others point to the loss of the in-form John McGinn to injury just before Christmas.
Most accept that the victory over Burnley on New Year's Day came at too high a price given that neither goalkeeper Tom Heaton nor striker Wesley have been fit to feature since.
Even so, when Villa beat Watford later that month, the win took them two points clear of relegation zone after 24 games and, remarkably, they were only six points behind Tottenham in eighth.
They appeared upwardly mobile and duly confirmed their place in the Carabao Cup final the following week. But the weakened squad was soon to take its toll.
It has been a struggle ever since.
Villa chief executive Christian Purslow had been bullish in pre-season.
"Dean thinks we should win every game of football," Purslow told supporters.
"He thinks if they score three, we'll score four. Be ready guys, he's not going away at Manchester City and try to play for a 0-0."
The problem was that while Villa led Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool going into the latter stages of games early in the season, they did not even manage to pick up a single point from any of them. In Smith's own words, Villa were "naïve" and "gung-ho" in their approach.
They went into the lockdown having conceded 56 goals at an average of exactly two per game - the worst defensive record in the Premier League. Since then, they have let in only one per game with only Manchester United and Wolves conceding fewer chances.
Smith knew he had to change it.
"We were conceding too many chances and too many goals," he says. "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."
Expected goals since the restart
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The defensive improvement has been marked and the underlying numbers reveal that Villa had the better chances against Sheffield United and Newcastle. They came close to matching Chelsea and Wolves too. But chances were not taken and Smith's side had only a couple of points to show for all their hard work.
"It can get lost because you are not winning games," he admits.
"The performances have been at a level that is better than before the pandemic. The plans have not disappointed me, it is the results that have disappointed me.
"We have played three of the top eight. We should have beaten Sheffield United and we should have beaten Newcastle. Chelsea was a tough game but we restricted them to a few chances and it was the same against Wolves."
Jose Mourinho recently came up with a curious analogy to describe the challenge of turning Tottenham into an effective team at both ends of the pitch.
"It's like when you have a blanket in your bed and you pull it up but then your feet are out and it's cold and then you cover your feet but then your body is cold. That is us."
Smith can just about raise a smile when it is put to him.
"It is always about that balance," he says. "But I was fairly pleased with the quality of chances against Sheffield United and Newcastle. We should have taken them.
"West Ham's game against Chelsea was very similar to ours but they took their chances and we did not. It is fine margins and we have to make sure that when the chances arrive - certainly in games like the one against Liverpool now - we have the quality to take them."
But do Villa have that quality?
Smith went with two strikers up front against Wolves but Mbwana Samatta and Keinan Davis now have three goals in 56 league appearances for Villa between them. One of the two will surely have to step up during the run-in.
What is palpably clear is that it is impossible to imagine Villa staying up without Jack Grealish finding top form.
The skipper has been short of his sparkling best since the restart and Smith has been devising ways to ensure that his star man can influence the game in the final third.
"I have spoken to Jack this week about getting him higher up the pitch," he explains. "That is where he can go and create opportunities for others and get chances himself."
Will it be enough? If everyone can stay together, Smith still believes so.
"One of the biggest reasons that we were promoted was because of the togetherness at the club, the staff, the players and the supporters. That has to be the same now.
"We have not got supporters in the stadium but we feel their support. If they can direct that on social media, the players will certainly feel that.
"I certainly believe in this group of players and I believe that we will remain in the league. I can see from the look in the players' eyes that they are ready for this."
I believe that we will remain in the league. I can see from the look in the players' eyes that they are ready for this.
As for Smith himself, he has always insisted that the emotions that come with him coaching the team that he supported as a boy were more difficulty for his family than for him.
He still recalls how his brother went quiet, perhaps worried about the travails that lay ahead, when told that he would be the new Aston Villa boss.
But Smith remains determined to enjoy this. He is determined to keep Villa up.
"If you cannot enjoy being the manager of your boyhood club in the Premier League then you are never going to enjoy anything," he adds. "Certainly, I don't enjoy losing football games and I never will. I have said to the players that I have had enough of losing.
"Let's start winning."