One thing that is absolutely certain about Dean Smith is that he knows how he wants his team to play. I recall back to his Walsall days where he enjoyed relative success playing the 4-3-3 system which he now deploys at Aston Villa. He continued this general shape at Brentford, encouraging ball players to play between the lines to disrupt the opposition, but with pacey, skilful wide men and a central focal number 9.
Whilst it is evident that Smith likes to set up with this formation, he has also been able to adapt to make the most of his player’s abilities in order to give his team a tactical edge. I distinctly remember Smith’s Brentford coming to Villa Park during Steve Bruce’s 2nd season and being astonished by how effective Romaine Sawyers was that day. He seemed able to glide into acres of space and dictate the play, utilising his passing and poise on the ball.
At Walsall, Sawyers was always too good for League One, however he was also hit and miss in terms of his productivity, playing as a classic number 10 he undoubtedly added creativity when he was on it, but on those regular off days he would need carrying by the rest of the team. So seeing that performance it became clear to me that Smith was able to work on a player over time and mould them into the team, utilising their not always so obvious attributes.
Last season at Villa, Smith undoubtedly squeezed some great displays from his players, but it was all fairly standard in terms of tactical prowess. He was never going to walk in the door and reinvent the wheel with the ageing and somewhat disenfranchised squad that he inherited. Whilst there were clear improvements in aspects such as fitness, ball retention and critically goal output, he stuck faithfully to that 4-3-3 shape focussing on creating chances form wide areas.
It is those wide areas which for me now cause the greatest confusion with how we set up. During the last two seasons both Steve Bruce and Smith played with classic wingers, Adomah, Green, Snodgrass and El Ghazi the main protagonists. This worked well for the most past, as we had strikers such as Grabban and Abraham who thrive off service from the wings so it was a natural way to play. It was also useful to overload and isolate a full back, or switch it quickly. However watching out first four Premier League games, I am yet to be convinced that playing with genuine wide players will not leave us short in other areas and leave our striker ploughing a lone furrow.
I would like to see Smith adopt a narrower approach for the front 3, similar to how Liverpool set up, with their world class Mane, Salah, Firmino axis. From what I have seen of Jota and Trezeguet in the opening matches, neither strike me as being classic touchline hugging wingers. Neither are blessed with pace and have looked more generally on the inside channels, linking with Wesley and Grealish. El Ghazi is the only typical winger in the squad and even he prefers to cut inside and attack the penalty area head on.
This would also open the opportunity to move Grealish into the front 3 - without him having to play as a winger as such. Jack himself has said in an interview with The Athletic that he does not relish a wide role and sees himself as a number 8. I imagine most of us would agree with this, however in games where were looking for extra traction through the middle, there may be scope for a 2nd holding player, making it tricky to line up with both Grealish and John McGinn in their favoured positions. It is worth remembering also that Grealish burst onto the scene under Tim Sherwood playing in that kind of role alongside N’Zogbia and Christian Benteke, although his game has become hugely more rounded as he has matured since then.
The key to making this work would of course be the full backs and how they cope with having to run their touch line on their own. Maybe this aspect will require work as players become accustomed to the Premier League intensity. The early signs are that Freddie Guilbert would relish this challenge, but he may require work on his positioning and discipline. Similarly at left back, Matty Targett’s game would lend it self to attacking, but whether he is defensively astute, or indeed good, enough at this level remains to be seen.
Most of all it is important to remember that this Villa side is a work in progress, still a year ahead of it’s intended rise to the top flight. The major surgery performed on the squad in the summer provides a huge challenge in itself, notwithstanding the vast step up in quality of opposition. I absolutely back Dean Smith to see us clear of relegation this season and provide a platform to kick on, but he will have to use all of his coaching and tactical prowess to find the formula that turns the disappointing early results around.