Dean Smith: Aston Villa have "strategic" plan to challenge Premier League elite

Villa might be a club on the rise but head coach Dean Smith knows from here the road only gets tougher.


              
Aston Villa manager Dean Smith during the Premier League match at Goodison Park, Liverpool. Issue date: Saturday May 1, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Everton. Photo credit should read: Naomi Baker/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.
Aston Villa manager Dean Smith during the Premier League match at Goodison Park, Liverpool. Issue date: Saturday May 1, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Everton. Photo credit should read: Naomi Baker/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

After swapping the relegation dogfight of a year ago for the more comfortable environs of mid-table in the season just finished, the next step for Smith and his team is to make a sustained challenge on the top six and European spots. History suggests that can be easier said than done.

“I am never one to temper ambitions because our ambitions are to keep progressing and growing,” explains Smith.

“But I think to climb from 17th to 11th is a lot easier than to climb from 11th to the top six or seven because of the size of the clubs who are there.

“Everybody will say Liverpool and Chelsea probably struggled a bit this season, yet they still finished in the top four at the expense of West Ham and Leicester.

“Their resources are a lot bigger than a lot of the other clubs in the league. We are still playing catch up in that sense.”

That may be true, yet there can be no question Villa have made up considerable ground since Smith first walked through the door in October, 2018, when they sat 15th in the Championship.

Having won promotion seven months later with a team supplemented heavily by veterans and loanees, their starting XI is now the youngest in the Premier League with almost every player on a long-term contract, the result of some savvy and sometimes under-rated recruitment made possible by the backing of billionaire owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens.

Their presence has allowed Villa to spend more than £260million on players since returning to the top flight and the long-term ambition of breaking into the elite and qualifying for the Champions League is clear. It is combined, however, with a healthy dose of realism and the acceptance that both getting there and staying there requires both time and patience.

The key word being used around the club’s Bodymoor Heath training ground is “strategic”. Villa are confident they have the right plan in place but know it can’t be carried out overnight, even though they are currently ahead of schedule.

“Our job now is to try to progress and overtake (those clubs above) which is a difficult thing to do,” continued Smith.

“But there is a plan in place and some things will happen more quickly than others.

“We didn’t expect to get promoted that first season, for example, but we did. Our job was to then stay up and we managed to do that and progressed again. It will be about progression but we also understand it takes time to become part of that elite group.”

Good work in the transfer window will again be key if Villa are to keep climbing and build on a campaign which flickered with the promise of what might lie ahead. Though a final position of 11th felt a tad underwhelming, their tally of 55 points would have been good enough for a top half finish in every other season since 1994. Wolves finished seventh and qualified for the Europa League in 2019 after picking up just two more points.

When seeking the signings who can help them take the next step, Smith and the club’s recruitment team talk of first finding the “sweet spot” of British players with prior Premier League experience, so as to lessen any adaptation risk. After that, the focus shifts to those who have played in Europe’s top five leagues.

Villa certainly scored big last summer with their four permanent signings: Ollie Watkins, Matty Cash, Bertrand Traore and Emiliano Martinez, all making big contributions, the latter winning supporters’ player of the season. Once again the onus is on adding quality rather than quantity. Norwich City playmaker Emi Buendia and Burnley winger Dwight McNeil are among targets under consideration, with the primary focus on easing the creative burden placed on Jack Grealish.

“We dropped off massively when Jack came out of the team in terms of our creativity,” admits Smith. “We know that is an area we must improve on to help Jack when he is playing, or if he has to miss a game or two.

“We feel we have a good squad in place. Looking back again, we had 13 new signings that first summer heading into the Premier League. That is too many if you want to be successful.

“We had four new permanent signings at the start of this season and Ross Barkley on loan. We thought that would help us progress again. We feel it is again important to go and get quality over quantity this year."

Smith is sceptical as to whether the financial squeeze caused by the pandemic means there will be more bargains available to those club's with deep pockets.

But he added: “We’re always looking for targets and hoping we can go and grab bargains, that’s what we’ll be looking to do.

“We’ve got a shopping list and we’ll try to invest wisely. We proved last season with the ones we got in – such as Ollie Watkins, Emi Martinez, Betrand Traoré and Matt Cash – that we were quite astute. Hopefully we can do more of the same.”

In addition to bringing new players in, there is also an expectation of improvement from those already at the club.

Smith points to Matt Targett, one of the summer 2019 intake, as a prime example. Often appearing out of his depth during his first season, the left-back underwent a remarkable transformation in his second, ending it as Villa’s only outfield player to start every Premier League and claiming the players’ player of the year award.

Ezri Konsa is another to have shaken off early question marks, to the extent the young centre-back can count himself somewhat unlucky not to be part of England’s Euro 2020 squad. Both he and Targett recently signed lengthy new deals.

“I’ve always said the biggest thing for me is to make sure we improve the players and I think we’ve done that on a regular basis,” says Smith.

“Our job is to make them better. If they become better individually, then we become better as a team. When we become better as a team, we win more football games. It’s as simple as that.

“That is why we have a younger squad because we know these players will get better, getting them on longer term contracts is really important.

“It is alright bringing in young players and building their value. But I’m hopeful players will come to Aston Villa, like Ezri Konsa and spend six, seven or eight years here.

“If they are doing that it means the club is progressing. That is an important part of the plan moving forward.”

In the background, meanwhile, sit Sawiris and Edens, owners who have said little but delivered plenty since saving the club from the brink of administration three summers ago.

A fanbase which saw previous custodian Randy Lerner spend big only to lose heart and interest when the difficulty of cracking the Premier League’s elite became apparent, might be forgiven for remaining a little wary.

Yet the fact a healthy portion of money has gone into bricks and mortar, with the construction of a new state-of-the-art high performance centre at Bodymoor and investment in an academy which has just won the FA Youth Cup, speaks of a vision more long-term.

Leicester, where developing infrastructure has also been key to success, are held up as the model to follow.

“I think they (the owners) are very astute businessmen who have a strategic plan,” says Smith.

“Part of that plan is to go and compete in the upper echelons of this league. That is where they want the club to go and they want to grow the brand of Aston Villa FC across the world. They are also aware that takes time.

“I speak to them regularly during our board calls and they are very ambitious but the key word is strategic, they build a plan and follow through.

“Every Villa fan can feel in safe hands with these owners. Everything they have said they would deliver, they have delivered on.

“You look at the academy - and this isn’t having a go at anyone - but from where it was three years ago, to where it is now, it is a place people want to come.

“We need to keep progressing and developing and continue that rise.”

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