Dean Smith is a confident and inspiring coach who lead Aston Villa to its best season in recent memory. He has a definite style and an effective method of teaching his simple yet modern system, inspiring confidence in his sides.
Previously, we looked at Aston Villa’s defensive setup - now we’ll be taking a look at how they’ll be creating goals in the Premier League.
In possession Villa are a much different side emphasizing fluid and creative play while looking to retain possession. Though position wise it is a 4-3-3, in motion it resembles a 2-3-2-3. The central defenders split wide with the fullbacks and attacking midfielders pushing up. The wingers drift centrally from wide positions alongside the striker once the ball advances into the final third. Key to the system is a creative fulcrum in front of the defense that can defend, launch counter attacks, and make late runs into the box.
What is the goal of this system? It is to create passing options and exploitable space giving players the tools to unlock defenses with a quick succession of passes. When a player is on the ball such as Jack Grealish or Conor Hourihane he will have no less than two options to pass to in addition to carrying the ball forward. This is a very ‘European’ style of play far from what Tifo Football coined ‘a 4-1 mess’ under Steve Bruce. Smith also seems to emphasize forward momentum as well as not wanting his players to pass backwards. While the ball may circulate between the center backs and the deep playmaker, once a full-back or attacking midfielder receives the ball he is looking to burst forward with a driving run or incisive pass. Only as a last resort will an advancing player stop and recycle possession back to the center backs. This system is no better exemplified than in the goal of the season against Rotherham which included build up from the back - a couple of one touch passes by Grealish and that driving run. No wonder Dean Smith loves that goal, it is his system working to perfection:
"This is wonderful work from Jack Grealish... Grealish! How about that for a terrific turnaround! Jack Grealish at the heart of it all and the real Aston Villa of late have turned up in the second half!"— AVFC Goals (@avfcgoals) April 11, 2019
Jack Grealish v Rotherham United (10/04/2019) #AVFC pic.twitter.com/tPVYjLK42Y
The spacing and positional interchange while in attack seems to be a point emphasized in Smith’s system. This creates problems for defenses as Villa’s players swap positions. The front three will often interchange confusing opposition marking and opening space for the ball carrier. Anwar El Ghazi in the Playoff Final against Derby County demonstrated this as he drifted inside both on and off the ball to create chances and score his goal.
I believe this is why Smith rates Jota so highly. He is a player who can create space for himself while also having the skill to take advantage of it. Interestingly the center forward seemed to be discouraged from dropping deep to assisting in buildup play. Abraham last season looked to move into spaces between opposing defenders dragging them out of position to open space for himself and others. Wesley showed traces of this movement in the first preseason match which is encouraging, and in the second he showed the initiative to drop deep and collect.
Will Dean Smith leep this fluid attacking system in the Premier League? That is a difficult question to answer. He will retain elements of this system, certainly the affinity for passing triangles and space. The good thing about Smith’s system is that it is adaptable. Allowing him to make slight changes and tweaks to better attack the opposition.
Against the weaker teams in the Premier League Villa will most likely look to maintain possession and dictate play having skilled enough players to lead the relegation pack.
This mentality might change against stronger opposition as we will sit slightly deeper looking to counter-attack with more direct over the top balls. A potential formation switch to a 4-2-3-1 might benefit Villa:
Dropping one of the attacking midfielders into a deeper role allows for a more defensive option to sit alongside Hourihane or John McGinn. This should provide solidity while keeping Hourihane’s range of passing and offensive capabilities in the lineup. The friendly against Minnesota FC gives us some insight into Smith’s thinking. He seemed to encourage a much more direct style of football with play starting wide allowing aggressive runs from deep midfielders. With the late goals created by direct counter attacking and the space manufactured by the fundamentals imparted by Smith.