Dean Smith did his job exceptionally well last season, his first in the Premier League in a managerial career that began at Walsall in 2011. Almost everything that could go wrong for Aston Villa did – including key injuries and chronic individual mistakes in a rapidly assembled squad – but Smith kept morale high and made shrewd use of the pandemic-enforced suspension to repair what had been the top-flight’s leakiest defence and, ultimately, pull clear of the drop.
“At times there was just a candle flickering but we managed to get some electricity and heat things up a bit,” says Smith of the late-season power surge. “We faced three shots on target in the last four games, which was an incredible team effort.” Villa’s ambitions for this season, and beyond, are much bigger and Smith is certainly not talking them down.
“Villa footballers have won the top trophy before, the European Cup in 1982,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m going to lead the team to that but that has to be the aim: to plan, over the next five or six years, to try to be challenging in Europe and things like that. You see the progress Wolverhampton have made over the last three years and that’s been fantastic to see as a fellow Midlander. You can’t help but admire what they’ve done. So a club as historically esteemed as ourselves should be aiming at that level as well. That’s what our owners will be aiming at and that’s what we have to aim at as coaching and playing staff.”
The billionaire owners, Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris, have helped bankroll the record purchase of the striker Ollie Watkins this month for a fee that could reach £33m, the £16m acquisition of the defender Matty Cash and the arrival of the goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez from Arsenal for about £20m. The Lyon forward Bertrand Traoré is close to joining for about £19m and there may be another addition or two. “Our mantra [for recruitment] this season was quality over quantity,” says Smith. “Last season was quantity because we needed to get 12 or 13 players in.”
The club evidently believed the £130m forked out last season after Smith guided the team out of the Championship could have been spent better, because as soon as the campaign ended the sporting director, Jesús García “Suso” Pitarch, was let go. He has been replaced by Johan Lange and a head of football recruitment, Rob Mackenzie, was hired. Rumours suggested Suso had brought in players Smith had not wanted. It would be easy, maybe even politic, for Smith to let those rumours flourish but he has too much integrity for that.
“Whatever was speculated before, I was in full agreement with the players brought in with Suso and I will be with Johan as well,” he says. “I felt for Suso last season because it was such a big turnover and I thought we did a fantastic job doing what we did. You’ll never hear a bad word about Suso from me. I really enjoyed working with him. The club decided to go in a different direction.
“My role [in recruitment] is pretty much the same. As soon as Johan came into the club we sat down and profiled the positions we needed and then it’s a case of me adding some names I liked in those positions. Then it’s down to the recruitment department, headed by Rob and with Johan’s input, to come up with players that a) fit the profile, b) fit the personality profile and c) are actionable. They come up with a list and I sit down with the coaches and decide the best ones.”
Smith hopes the quality over quantity mantra, plus his coaching, will enable him to field a more consistent lineup. “Last season we probably only had a handful of players who you could say were guaranteed starters, your A+ players. The team changed around quite a bit.
The idea was always to build that small core of players into a bigger one in the second season so you can have nine or 10 players who you look at and say: ‘He must be doing something poorly if he’s not starting a game.’ You look at Liverpool and other top teams, that’s what they have, a real core of eight-nine players who are playing week in, week out because of their quality.”
Smith identifies the core players from last season as Tyrone Mings, John McGinn, Douglas Luiz and Jack Grealish, who this week signed a new five-year contract. Smith and Grealish, Villa fans since childhood, enjoy a close relationship. The manager says Grealish is the best player he has worked with; Grealish says Smith gets the best out of him and is “like a father figure”. Smith was delighted to see Grealish make his England debut last week, especially as it has provided a stimulus that should serve Villa even more.
“He fully deserved that cap. He said he went there and got his head down and worked but learned a lot from rubbing shoulders with top players like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. It was great for him to see the level he has to continue to reach and become consistent at.
“Jack has previously credited a change in his attitude to when JT [John Terry] came into this club as a player. He saw how professional JT was and learned from that and he’ll have learned even more again from the England camp.
“One of the first things he did [after the England trip] was come to me and say: ‘Gaffer, can we have a four-week schedule so we can plan. I saw some of the other lads had that and it would be great for us.’ He’s never asked me for that before, we only give two weeks. It’s great that he wants to keep getting better.”
That reflects a positive kind of pressure Smith encourages at Villa. “We’re very fortunate to have the owners we do. They’ve invested an awful lot of money already and now it is going to be down to the strategy of the people they have employed. It’s not just about the finances they have because we want to make it a sustainable club. We signed an awful lot of players with potential last season and they have to go on and fulfil their potential.
“Once they start fulfilling their potential then the world can be your oyster because players get to a level where they are pushing each other. Because if they’re not, then they want to go to clubs that are competing in Europe. That’s where we as a club have to push ourselves to make sure their hunger is being fed.
“Last season we felt we would have been better than six or seven teams but, with the injuries that we had, staying up was a success. Now we have to do better. We won’t be happy just hanging on this season. We’re about growing, trying to become a better team and better players.”