Rewind to New Year’s Day and, before the first Premier League football of 2021, the table showed a solitary team who had scored twice as many goals as they had conceded. Aston Villa were fifth, but win their game in hand on their immediate rivals and they would be third. They were flying.
In a statistical sense, perhaps that represented the high point of Dean Smith’s reign. There were many other peaks, however, from promotion at Wembley to staying up at West Ham, from Trezeguet’s last-minute Carabao Cup semi-final winner against Leicester to a hat-trick of triumphs over Arsenal, via a historic 7-2 demolition of Liverpool and what proved a valedictory victory at Old Trafford.
He was a transformative manager for a club who languished in the lower half of the Championship when he was appointed; and yet, gone a little after three years, he may be a transitional one, given their grander ambitions. Smith’s innate likeability, the back story of the local lad who grew up to manage the club he had always supported and his attractive football should all generate sympathy for him.
Fans of many other clubs must wish they had their own Dean Smith.
But if sackings bring the question of where it all went wrong, 2021 may be a starting point. Villa have lost 18 league games in the calendar year. They are 16th now. In the autopsy, perhaps two departures inflicted fatal wounds on Smith. Villa have conceded 20 goals in 11 league games this season without John Terry on his coaching team; Tyrone Mings was one of the great successes of Smith’s management, the Bournemouth reserve who went on to excel at Euro 2020, but he has floundered this season amid defensive mishaps.
And, most obviously, there is Jack Grealish, the other Villa supporter who formed such a symbolic double act with Smith. Last season, Villa won 54 per cent of league games their captain started and 21 per cent that he did not. This year, shorn of the £100 million man, they have a 27 per cent win ratio.
Smith may find himself bracketed with Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas among managers who never recovered from the loss of a talent and talisman who defined a team; as with Luis Suarez at Liverpool and Gareth Bale at Tottenham, the Grealish windfall was split several ways (not least because £100 million players don’t tend to join Villa). But expenditure brings expectations and the three recruits charged with bringing bits of Grealish’s game have been underwhelming thus far.
Danny Ings’ return of three goals and two assists is respectable, and his bicycle kick against Newcastle was brilliant, but he and Ollie Watkins are yet to gel as a partnership. Leon Bailey had his remarkable 21-minute cameo against Everton, bringing a goal, an assist and an injury, but has often been sidelined. Emi Buendia feels the gravest disappointment, even if a player whose best form for Norwich came when operating off the right seemed miscast as a No.10.
Smith’s switch to a system without wingers scarcely seemed ideal for Bailey or Buendia, but there was no shape to suit both plus Ings and Watkins. Yet if Smith seemed to be stumbling in the quest for a solution, the reality is that Ings, Bailey and Buendia only spent 36 minutes on the pitch together. The sample size is far too small to pronounce that they cannot play together.
But while Smith had his transfer-market triumphs, whether Watkins or Mings or Emi Martinez or Ezri Konsa, more recent buys can consume the attention.
So can more recent results. He hauled Villa out of the mire after lockdown. He was not given the chance to oversee another rescue act after five successive defeats. The bizarre way a 2-0 lead over Wolves suddenly became a 3-2 loss assumed a greater significance, along with Konsa’s red card against West Ham and dismal first halves against Arsenal and Southampton. But Smith nevertheless ranks as at least Villa’s best manager since Martin O’Neill; perhaps, given his inheritance, their finest since Brian Little.
The focus on what went wrong should not deflect from what he did right.
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