Dean Smith exclusive interview: Putting Aston Villa’s poor run of form into context before the Southampton game


Dean Smith is in good spirits and he would be even better if people would stop asking him. “It does not annoy me,” he tells Sky Sports, “but I do get it a lot. People keep asking me if I am fine. I am fine. My family are not immune to criticism but they are fine too.”

He has always been able to switch off – “plenty of years of training” – so he is still sleeping and even managed to make it to the golf course on Tuesday. “I played well.” But he knows too that there are issues that need to be addressed on the pitch at Aston Villa.

The reason for the questions about his mood is that his team have lost four Premier League matches in a row. It is not quite an unprecedented experience in his long managerial career, but Smith has never made it five. Villa travel to Southampton on Friday.

It is a reminder of how quickly things can change. Villa finished September four points off top having beaten Manchester United. “We were coming off the pitch at Old Trafford having won there for the first time in 12 years and the world is a wonderful place.”

Defeat by Tottenham followed, then came an extraordinary turnaround against Wolves when Villa led by two goals after 80 minutes and still lost. A poor showing at Arsenal preceded a 4-1 home defeat to West Ham in which his side were reduced to 10 men.

Smith is au fait with expected goals from his time at analytically-savvy Brentford and does not want to overreact. A deflected free-kick from Ruben Neves won it for Wolves. Two goals from outside the area took the game away from them last time out.

“Context is a word that we use quite a lot,” he explains.

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“West Ham scored two goals that had a combined xG of six per cent. You do not normally concede goals like that, so you would normally want players to be shooting from the areas where Declan Rice and Ben Johnson both scored from. Sometimes it goes against you.

“Some of the goals that we have conceded, we have made small mistakes. It does not take an awful lot to right those wrongs and turn things around. When you are playing elite sport at a high level there are things that can turn very marginally.

“We have had that in our last two games where a couple of pivotal decisions have been re-refereed by VAR which was not the intention of VAR because both were not clear and obvious. We have also had a lot of soft tissue injuries all at the same time.”

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Smith speaks calmly and clearly, but not everyone will want to hear talk of statistical odds, refereeing decisions and injuries. If the defeats continue, explanations will become viewed as excuses. But nobody should mistake Smith’s philosophical mood for inertia.

Against West Ham, the Villa boss dropped his captain Tyrone Mings. As a huge figure on the pitch and in the dressing room, it was a decision that Smith knew would be seen as significant, but he insists that he did not do it to make any kind of statement.

“It is not why I made the decision,” he says.

“It was made solely to win the game by picking what I believed would be our best team. The fact that Tyrone is captain is something that just comes with that. Carrying that armband, your performance levels have to be good as well and I just felt they had dropped off.

“That was a football decision.”

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from West Ham’s win at Aston Villa in the Premier League

And yet, it is illustrative of what has become a struggle for defensive consistency. Only the so-called big six teams conceded fewer goals than Villa last season. That solidity is missing and they are still trying to find the right blend further forwards too.

On the face of it, Villa have some quality options now, the signings of Danny Ings, Emiliano Buendia and Leon Bailey strengthening their attack in the summer transfer window.

“I am excited about what a lot of these players will bring.”

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But there have been only glimpses thus far. Bailey arrived injured and though there was an encouraging cameo at Everton, the defeat to West Ham was his first start. Buendia is yet to ignite after a stop-start few months, but the belief remains that he is a special talent.

“His stats suggest he is a really good pressing player as well, his numbers at Norwich show that he is really good at winning the ball back. We felt we wanted to add some creativity to the squad with Jack going and bringing Buendia and Bailey in would add that for us.”

That it is Smith himself who brings up the J word is something of a relief. Any talk of progress must come within the context of that £100m sale of Jack Grealish – a player valued at more than Villa have paid for any three forwards they might pick combined.

There is no like-for-like swap. “Replacing him is not the word for me,” says Smith. What Villa have tried to do is add depth, different ways for them to hurt the opposition. But the advantage of that stronger squad has not been obvious so far because of those injuries.

“We have the depth as long as they are fit and available.”

Bailey, Buendia and Ings, as well as Ollie Watkins, have all missed matches this season. Indeed, Smith has only been able to name all four in the same Premier League squad twice and they have spent just 23 minutes on the same pitch as each other.

“Jack is an extremely gifted footballer who improved Aston Villa. Our job is to make us stronger without Jack. The biggest thing is getting some consistency and allowing these players to settle. They have not had the game time to settle just yet, that is the problem.

“I keep talking about consistency, but we have to have some in our team. If you think back to last season, we could probably name our team before the sheet was handed in. This season, that is a bit more difficult because of who has been available and who has not.”

Only Leeds United made fewer changes to their starting line-up in the Premier League last season. Villa have made more changes than most other teams in the competition this time around. It was a factor in the decision to switch to a 3-5-2 formation in August.

With his wingers unavailable, Smith tried to pair Watkins and Ings as a front two instead. “We felt that we had a system that fitted the players who were available to us at that time. It is not my favourite system, I must admit, but it was one I felt we needed to play.”

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Aston Villa head coach Dean Smith reflects on a run of four consecutive defeats

Did he have a different system in mind? “Yes, I had it in mind.” Has he been able to play it? “No, I have not been able to play it.” Perhaps only then, when Bailey and Buendia are up to speed, will we see the real Aston Villa. But they need to find a way to win first.

“It has been a difficult time but I believe we have a strong squad and a squad capable of getting results during these periods. We are only 10 games into the season. We are not where we wanted to be by a long shot, but our ambition is still to become a top 10 team.

“They are our ambitions but we have to turn the results around. The players have to perform better than they have been doing, certainly defensively. If we can get that win at Southampton, then we can use the break to bring back some of the injured players.”

Three points would take Villa back into mid-table and, albeit briefly, just four points off fifth. It would calm the fans, but how about the coach? “I have been in football long enough to know that it can turn very quickly,” adds Smith. No need to ask if he is fine.

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