Aston Villa’s new Head Coach, Dean Smith, will take charge of his first Villa game riding a wave of unexpected optimism. It’s a sell-out. Every Villan and their dog is backing him and AVFC to the hilt. He’ll face Swansea - and the tactically astute coach will go up against a formidable opponent. Graham Potter’s side are one of the best footballing teams in this Championship.
Smith will have to weaponise the good vibes at Villa Park, and he’ll have to hit the ground running. His reputation as a stellar footballing coach precedes him, but it’ll be a big ask for his Aston Villa side to look anything close to a finished product come Saturday evening. While a positive result is on the cards - we have to be realistic. Has it come too soon for Smith?
With that all in mind, and with Smith able to actually do something with this Aston Villa squad, lets talk about some tactical ideas to preview Dean Smith’s first match in charge of the Villa. Just how will they set up and take the game to Swansea? This is not meant to be a bible - and I wouldn’t swear by it, but it’s good, and fun, to look at the ideas in Smith’s Brentford that could come across to Smith’s Villa.
Before we start - a brief. It’s important to consider the points brought up by the Brentford vs Leeds tactical analysis on the excellent The Coaches Voice. We can’t pay too much attention to this, but it’s valuable context. This is a Brentford side coached by Dean Smith in their prime, with years of training and hours behind them. Arguably, there should also be a better average quality of player in this Aston Villa side. It’s a bit much to lean on, but we’ll certainly see some of the same ideas develop in Smith’s time with Villa. Hopefully, this side is a bit of a blank canvas for Dean right now.
To pivot or not to pivot?
The key thing to look out for on 2pm UK time on Saturday when the lineup is made public is this: Who will be in Villa’s midfield?
Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa enjoyed a wealth of midfield talent. So will Dean Smith’s Villa. Look, if you can call on someone like Henri Lansbury as a ‘depth’ option, you’re laughing. Bruce’s Villa moved to a midfield three after an initial pairing of Lansbury and Conor Hourihane seemed a bit fragile. Mile Jedinak as a defensive anchor behind the pair helped Villa launch attacks. Still, this was rigid and relied on a lot of instinct to get the midfield doing anything apart from passing and winning the ball in Villa’s half. What’s more, when Jack Grealish arrived onto the scene and won his place in the side, Villa didn’t really build around him - they just slotted him in for Lansbury as part of a midfield trio on most occasions. Villa need to let Jack work up top, and thus need to free him from the midfield. This means bringing Mile Jedinak/Glen Whelan/Birkir Bjarnason to sit alongside Conor Hourihane or John McGinn or it means trusting one of two attack minded midfielders to keep a leash on their play. I believe that Smith will trust McGinn with lying deep, letting Hourihane move freely to support Grealish higher up. I believe that this will also be flexible, and we’ll see a lot of rotation and role-switching. It’d be best for Smith to trust two central-midfielders, which will unlock Jack Grealish.
Against Leeds United, Brentford lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with the formation looking top loaded with two aggressive wingers, one playmaker behind a leading forward and two midfielders. One running high with the ball, one best left as a defensive midfielder. There are plenty of similarities for Smith to utilise here, and I need not list them - they are obvious.
Smith, if he were to be a bit ‘boring’ could do the same thing with Villa. The midfield pairing listed above could support Jack Grealish. Or Grealish could be played out wide - trusting that he’ll cut into the middle, and you could maybe put one of Villa’s strikers behind Tammy Abraham up top. There’s a lot to play with here - which is good and takes so much pressure off of Villa’s frail defence, especially if they can get some goals scored. All that’d need to happen is for Villa to score, then strangle the play and burst free on the counter. That’s wishful thinking though, and matches don’t often follow best-laid plans.
Believe it or not, but it’s pointless to talk about Villa’s defence - at all. Not that they aren’t good.. It’s just that their existence is quite futile when Villa can’t score - and they couldn’t really do that under Steve Bruce this season. Even then, they couldn’t sustain a threat long enough to keep the other side busy and distracted. The defence simply need to keep their heads screwed on and launch Villa into a counter-attack. Keeping the ball away from them is key, as Villa’s defence and goalkeeper have been their own worst more often than not this season.
Brentford, like any sane attack-minded team, were keen on overloading the centre. Bringing the wingers with a ‘10’ and opening up passing lanes before the box to play in a runner. Having your attackers beat the defenders man-to-man, is the best situation any team could be in and it’s not necessarily about ‘doing really good dribbles from box-to-box’ but more so engineering situations in which your attackers, outnumber their defenders.
This is not rocket science, but it may as well have been. Aston Villa need to pitch in and help each other man-to-man. They need to be fluid, flexible and aggressive up top. Substitutions need to be smart and deployed at the right time and some times, strong players must be kept on the bench and rotated in late in the game to effect change. Villa will need to press from the front and steal the ball to create panic and get the opposition defence reacting - this will be tough against Swansea, who seem ice-cold calm before their own goalmouth.
Brentford used one of their midfield two - Romaine Sawyers to spearhead attacks and also offer another runner through the middle. It’s a bit pie-in-the-sky right now, but a situation where you have Grealish in position, with Hourihane, the wingers, and the striker as possible passing options before him is enticing, to say the least.
This does open up Villa, and they’ll have to rely on a high defensive line and a solid defending midfielder to win the day. That’s when it all goes up in the air. Just a bit. If AVFC take the lead on Saturday, I’ll expect them to compress and ask questions of Swansea - dangerous for Villa under Bruce, when they folded. Could Smith get the best out of a Villa side without the ball?
All-in-all we’ll want to see some high quality movement ahead of the ball, and Villa’s players readily getting involved in providing options and distracting the defence. Not a big ask considering the talent in the squad.
I can’t look past this right now for Villa. We’ll trust Nyland to claim the number one spot, and Neil Taylor to have a chance to make left-back his own. Chester SHOULD start with Tuanzebe, but I wouldn’t rule anything out right now. Especially if Smith believes Axel is worth more in midfield or at full-back than in defence, but I find that hard to believe. Ahmed Elmohamady has been Villa’s best right-back for a while now, but expect James Bree to have a shot.
Villa’s midfield two could consist of anyone. Jedinak, Hourihane, McGinn, Lansbury, Bjarnason, Whelan. All have a shot of making Smith’s first line-up. Jack Grealish is a definite, but whether he’s out-wide or in the middle of Villa’s attack remains to be seen. Smith may yet trust Grealish as a deeper play-maker, like what we saw last year, which would probably give room for Jonathan Kodjia or Scott Hogan to move up into a striking position alongside Tammy Abraham.
Out-wide, Villa haven’t yet fully fell in love with El-Ghazi, while Yannick Bolasie has been returning to fitness. It’s up in the air, but I expect both to start, alongside Tammy Abraham up front.
We’re operating on a whole lot of nothing right now - but we can be almost certain that Villa will showcase a more progressive brand of football. I expect that right now, we’ll be a ‘faux-Brentford’ of sorts until Smith develops something new for Villa. Whether that means instant results remains to be seen. This is the first in-depth tactical ‘thing’ I’ve ever done and we’ve missed something like this on the site. I hope you enjoyed it!