Dean Smith is learning. A theme of many of my posts over the last few months was about Smith’s ability to learn. I have repeatedly questioned some of Smith’s decision making. In particular, I have questioned Smith in relation to substitutions and team selection. So much so I asked if Dean Smith is holding Aston villa back. This is still a concern for me but against Arsenal, I saw some signs which give me hope.
Villa fans could not be in a much better place now. We are playing nice football and we are in the top half of the table. Our defense is excellent having 11 clean sheets from 21 games. We also have attacking players that have scored 36 goals, the 5th highest in the Premier League. So is it really fair to criticize Dean Smith? In a word, yes! I love Dean Smith, he has done brilliantly at Aston Villa but we are on the way to greatness and we need to continually ensure we have the right people to take us there. That is regardless of whether that person is a player, a coach, or part of the Villa management team.
Pep Guardiola is probably the best manager in the Premier League, if not in world football. He is a serial winner. I don’t buy into the argument that his success is a result of spending money or simply ‘having’ the best players. I actually find that view extremely limited in its thinking. If it was that simple then why do football clubs pay managers such high salaries, why do clubs sack managers? Why did the same people that think Pep isn’t any good also want Bruce out of Villa? Surely it was just a matter of chucking more money at him?
Yesterday afternoon, at halftime against Liverpool, Pep demonstrated why he is the best. At nil-all Pep sent out his team for the second half to play in a different formation. Man City switched to 4-4-2 and they ripped Liverpool apart (I know what JCV is thinking now!). Yes, Alisson helped but Man City showed their dominance regardless of Alisson’s contributions. Pep read the game perfectly. He came up with a plan to overcome Liverpool’s resistance. At halftime, he explained his plan to the players and they executed it. The result, a 4-1 win for City and I think, the 3 points which give City the PL title this season.
Dean Smith v West Ham
Last week Aston Villa had a very disappointing loss to West Ham. It is a game I think we deserved to lose. I hate saying we deserved to lose a game and it is only the 3rd game this season I think we deserved to lose. The other two were the losses against Leeds and Southampton. Without trying to overanalyze the game, The Hammers were the better team and in fairness to Smith, he did try something I did not expect. He replaced Traore with El Ghazi for the second half. However, our players looked absolutely knackered, particularly Barkley and Luiz. Barkley was replaced on 69 mins and Luiz made way for Sanson’s debut on 80 mins. I maintain the Barkley and Luiz substitutions were too little too late but at least he made them.
Dean Smith v Arsenal
A few short days after losing to The Hammers we hosted Arsenal. We won and completed our first league double over The Gunners in 28 years. It was also our 3rd league win over them in about 6 months. Is Arsenal becoming our new Birmingham City where we can bank 6 points every season😀?. Again Dean Smith caught me by surprise and dropped Luiz for Nakamba in the starting 11. For the record, I think Luiz is a far better player and has a huge future at Villa. But I think dropping Luiz or put another way, resting Luiz was the right thing to do. Nakamba had a great game against Newcastle and fresh legs at DM really helped against Arsenal. Is it that Dean Smith learning? It is certtainly looking that way.
I really enjoyed the Arsenal game. It’s lovely to get an early goal, it puts a different perspective on the remainder of the game. We had 8 shots on target and can consider ourselves unlucky not to score more. Emi Martinez was back to his brilliant best after a hiccup against The Hammers. He has now 2 clean sheets against Arsenal since we paid a paltry 18m for his services. The Villa backline was immense with Mings leading by example with another MOTM performance. He is without question an essential part of the Villa team. In the second part of the second half both SJM and Nakamba worked great as a DM pairing. They sat a little deeper and helped to protect our back 4. Dean Smith had his game management spot on.
We have a week off following Arsenal and have a day at the seaside when we meet Brighton at 8pm on Saturday night. Lots of time for recovery and lots of time for work on the training ground. Brighton will be a very tough game. They are on the back of wins against Liverpool and Spurs and a draw with Burnley. Anyone that thinks 3 points on Saturday is a given needs to reassess their thoughts. Yes, I believe we will get 3 points but we will need to be at our best and Deam Smith needs to manage the game correctly.
Having had a week off suits Smith’s playbook. He likes to pick the same 11 and he likes them to stay on the pitch for 90 minutes. The players will be well-rested so I expect we will see our ‘normal’ first 11 start.
However, Dean Smith must show he is learning and make changes to the side at the right time. If / when Barkley and Traore are lookimg tired then change them. Don’t wait till we concede. If we need to protect a 1-0 lead then bring on Marvelous to play alongside either McGinn or Luiz. With a scoreline of 3-0 then get Sanson on the pitch for some much needed gametime. If we manage the game correctly we will wake up on Sunday morning with a slight hangover and 38 points on the table.
Midtable Mini League
Last time out I published a midtable mini league. This is the mini league between the 8 teams I believe are competing for positions 7th through 14th. Importantly, 7th place is likely to have a Europa league spot as a prize. I like this mini league as it gives us a clearer view of how we are doing against the teams that count. I have updated this table and have also included a new column. The new colum shows the points gained since I first published the table (last week). I intend to show this table a lot more as the season progresses.
We are looking good in third position but the bad news is that both Hammers and Everton extended their lead over us by a point. We have 2 games in hand over The Hammers which is great but we are level on games played with Everton. If we want to qualify for Europe then we must overtake Everton and losing points to them is not the way to do it. On a positive we have gained 3 points over Arsenal increasing the gap to 4 points and we have 2 games in hand. As I said in the last blog, the games against teams in this table are crucial to our end of year position and our win over Arsenal highlights just that.
What The Bookies Say
The bookies have this game very tight. Villa are slight favourites for the win at 6/4. Brighton is only 17/10 with the draw at 5/2. My gut says that 5/2 is the best bet but as Villa don’t do draws maybe it isn’t. You can get 15/1 on Villa to win 2-0 which is where I would put my money if I bet on football.
Oh, by the way, the reason there is a picture of Mings for this leader blog is because he was absolutely fantastic against Arsenal.