What short memories football fans have!
Not 6 months after one of the most miraculous promotions in history and the certainly the greatest 3 months I have had following Aston Villa, head coach Dean Smith is coming under serious pressure from supporters.
Results and performances have not been good. There is no getting away from that and that many features of our game from the first 2 months of the season, have been fading for a number of matches since the impressive 2-2 draw at Manchester United on 1st December.
It is frustrating to watch a team, who previously looked so capable and with room to grow, seemingly take several steps backwards and look completely overwhelmed against other teams at the bottom of the division.
Whilst the unrest at Villa Park has been growing, even during the 1-0 Boxing Day victory over Norwich, the social media backlash is also growing to a crescendo, as fans start to question whether Dean Smith has the wit and tactical acumen to stop the rot over the next few weeks, particularly as he is missing tow of his most reliable henchmen in Tyrone Mings and John McGinn.
Following the appalling capitulation verses 10-man Watford last time out, the concerns cranked up in volume, as Villa ended the calendar year in the relegation zone, albeit only 1 point behind 17th spot. For many it appears that the alarming loss in form is a sign that Smith may be out of his depth at Premier League level and unable to motivate his team to at least battle and fight, if they are unable to match the opposition technically.
Even as a Smith supporter, I find myself having concerns about this. An aspect of Smith’s career which has followed him from Walsall, through his Brentford reign and now onto Villa Park, is a tendency to have streaks, both good and bad, where his team are seemingly unbeatable, or clueless respectively. In each case it does not last, however the final points total is undoubtedly hampered.
It is understandable that amongst the fans there is anxiety about the possibility of relegation, having just returned to our rightful position in the top-flight and the shameful disaster of 2016 still an open wound for many. Whilst the ownership of Sawiris and Edens has brought a new progressive dimension to the club, the fear that it could all go up in smoke after only a couple of seasons is very real.
As we know in football, good intentions and heavy investment only get you so far. If it is not right in the dugout and on the pitch, all that can count for very little and even be held against managers who have had access to these resources. Then comparisons are made with other clubs who have made the jump more successfully, for example Wolves and Sheffield United, who have adapted very well indeed, to the Premier League since their promotions. As fans we find ourselves coveting their situations and wondering why it can’t be like that for Villa.
Every situation is different though. As miraculous as our promotion was, it was achieved on the strength of 2-3 months of brilliance, on a base of a record goals haul from on loan Tammy Abraham, now ripping it up leading the line at Chelsea. Then came the decimation and rejuvenation of the playing squad, as twelve new players came in for an average of around £10 million each.
As we rode the crest of the promotion wave throughout the summer and welcomed these exciting new signings, few of us considered the consequences of this revamp failing. We had confidence in our recruitment policy and the track record Dean Smith has of improving players and raising the overall level of his teams, as we should.
However, the step up to the Premier League is difficult enough without the uncertainty of whether the new players will cope with the level. It could be argued and it is certainly my viewpoint, that to gel an almost entirely new team, whilst also trying to improve individuals to the required standard, plus continuing to indoctrinate his philosophy into he club, takes longer than a few months, particularly given the intensity of the Premier League. My objective view of this is that this slump was almost inevitable at some stage and that fact that it has come before the transfer window, may prove something of a blessing.
Earlier in the season the signs were good. Villa were going toe-to-toe with big teams and playing well. However they were hitting walls after 75-80 minutes and losing games which appeared to be won, none more so that away at Arsenal and in the home match verses Liverpool. However something has changed. The drop off in intensity and an inability to block the transition has the defence looking raged and confused, whilst Wesley toils without any effect up front, defeat always seems likely, especially once Villa go behind.
There is a loose parallel here with the aforementioned Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. They too started live a train under his initial season, before seeming to suddenly go off the boil. It is hard to imagine now, but this period also called Klopp’s management into question, although he had the luxury of having better players who were able to keep them towards the top of the league.
It could be considered that this is deliberate in order to preserve fitness and reduce burnout, whilst other aspects of the game are ironed out. It is a risk given the importance of the results and the dangers of being unable to arrest the slide. However if we consider how adept Liverpool are now at picking their moments to go through the gears and back again, in order to kill opponents off at will, there maybe some method to the apparent madness at Villa Park.
Of course, I am not suggesting that the Villa in any way resemble Liverpool, or even that Smith could potentially emulate Klopp. All I am suggesting is that there may be very valid reasons for the downturn from a tactical standpoint and that our players are not adept enough to stay afloat during the time of flux.
We may never find out, if Purslow and NSWE decide to go in a different direction in order to ensure survival. The fans will undoubtedly play a part in that as boardrooms struggle to resist the will of the fan base if the atmosphere becomes toxic, as demonstrated by Steve Bruce’s sacking last year. Smith will however he given some slack by virtue of being ‘one of our own’ as despite the loss of form his approval rating seems relatively high and he retains credit for that day at Wembley in May. It would be almost disturbing to witness a fan revolt against a man who is essentially a club hero already.
My position has not changed since August. For me, he gets the season, especially whilst we are in striking distance of 17th. For all the talk of Europe and top half finishes, I would wager that behind the scenes survival is the target and if that is still possible, Smith is fulfilling his remit. It is still very early into Smith’s evolution of the club and I would be happy to hold tight and see how it pans out over the next 2-3 seasons, as opposed to starting the revolving door again.
Now is the time for strong wills and patience, not emotional kneejerk reactions. We need courage not faint heart and we need to trust in the process and back Smith to once again turn this very capable group into winners.