Aston Villa boss Dean Smith: We’ll do it hard way
If Villa are to avoid relegation this season they will very likely have to do it the hard way.
While the first week of the Premier League’s return saw Dean Smith’s team erase the gap between themselves and safety to mere goal difference, the bigger story is one of missed opportunity after chances to beat both Sheffield United and Newcastle were squandered.
It is a feeling heightened by the prospect of what is to come. Tomorrow’s derby with Wolves is the first of three straight meetings against teams in the top six with a trip to Liverpool and a home clash with Manchester United looming on the horizon.
With Villa having failed to take a major scalp so far this season, now would appear the ideal time to start.
Smith, of course, can point to a number of near misses during the early months of the campaign when his team put the frighteners on Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool before ultimately falling to defeat.
More recent meetings with the top six have, by contrast, been chastening with Leicester (twice) and Manchester City dealing out severe punishment.
But while Villa were also beaten by fourth-placed Chelsea last weekend, Smith took heart from the defensive performance and the consistent message is that his team must continue to build from the back.
If the immediate fixture list is the type to spark fear, the boss isn’t showing it.
“We see the next three games as opportunities,” said Smith. “We did OK against Chelsea in my opinion. I know other opinions are different, but we restricted a team like that to a few good chances which is all they had in the game, which is very good.
“Our defensive organisation at the moment is excellent. The big players are playing well. Tyrone has done well while Kortney Hause has just come in and has been a colossus at the back. He will relish playing against his former team.
“There are a lot of things we need to do right to go and win one of these games, that includes getting Jack Grealish on the ball a little bit more and getting that spark back.
“It’s been tough for him in the first three games, he didn’t have as much ball as he would’ve liked against Chelsea.
“He was quiet against Sheffield United, but he is starting to come back to the Jack we know last night, especially the last 15 or 20 minutes.”
At one point during yesterday’s press briefings Smith was asked whether, as regional rivals, he saw Wolves’ success as an inspiration or irritation. His answer was firmly in the former camp.
“I’m very respectful of what Nuno has done with Wolves,” he said. “They are an inspiration to any club who comes up from the Championship. I was playing against him (Nuno) with Brentford in the Championship.
“They got promoted and now we’ve got promoted and it’s something to aspire to, in terms of what Wolves have done, their squad, and how they play.”
One suspects Smith – and Nuno for that matter – are less respectful of the Premier League’s fixture schedulers, who opted to give their teams just two full days’ rest.
The match is the only top-flight fixture taking place tomorrow, with a smiling Smith admitting hope Adama Traore and Raul Jimenez might be weary after the short recovery period.
Villa flew back from Newcastle on Wednesday night and held a scheduled post-match debrief which lasted until 1am the following morning.
Players, who have been staying over the night before and after matches during the run-in, were back in yesterday afternoon for recovery work before a full training session takes place today.
Fatigue will not be the only challenge, with the 128th meeting between the clubs set to take place in conditions like no other.
“Not having supporters there will take away a lot of the spice,” said Smith. “But it is down to us to make the players feel like they are playing with supporters there and make sure they take that passion into the game.
“Playing with passion is going to give them the extra one or two per cent they need at the moment. It is such a quick turnaround in games. We have got to make sure we carry that passion into the game. The confidence has not wavered. I have always said performances are the biggest marker for gauging confidence.
“When the players are playing well, they know. They know they are playing well at the moment and are hard to play against.
“We are not giving many chance away which is what needed to change. What we need to do is convert our chances. We all know what a win would do to the league table.
“There are a lot of positives to take, the defensive displays in all three games so far, including Chelsea, has restricted the opposition. We are just going to keep pushing to try to get that win.”
Predicted Villa team: Nyland, Targett, Elmohamady, Mings, Hause, Hourihane, El Ghazi, McGinn, Luiz, Grealish, Davis.