Aston Villa have undoubtedly had a good start to the 2020/21 campaign and we won all four of our matches in September to give everyone a great lift – but Thursday evening’s action against Stoke City in the EFL Cup was the proverbial damp squib.
With the 90 minutes being a decent dose of realism when it came to our true strength in depth and how far we still have to go when it comes to rebuilding the club back up, there were strong and wide ranging opinions aired in our match thread both during, and after, the game.
As talk turned to head coach Dean Smith, his selections for the game and where we go moving forward, Vital Villa forum member crimsondonkey made some very good points, and despite the victories we picked up last month, the call for more progress in our playing style and further improvements in our organisation will leave many fans in agreement.
It was a poor night, but we still had the chances to win the game reasonably comfortably and, of course, it wasn’t our strongest side, but everyone should be seeking further improvement over the coming months…that should go without saying.
I think that the true test of our progress in terms of the quality of the squad, and the degree to which Deano has learned from last season, will be how Villa perform against the teams around us. Beating the strugglers at the very bottom, and losing against the very top teams, clearly tells us nothing (so the Liverpool game is a free hit and then move on).
The key to the mid table comfort we all seek lies in taking enough points off the likes of Burnley, Crystal Palace, Brighton, Newcastle, Southampton etc.
I still maintain there is more to this than just squad quality. To be anywhere near effective and consistent enough to get those points we need to see this bunch of strangers formed into a coherent team who are drilled and prepped properly in the system that Dean wants to play.
I know some people don’t like the comparison, in part because of being a local rival and also because of a bit of sour grapes and jealousy etc, but purely from a coaching standpoint when Nuno took charge of Wolves, and even before the Mendes players started to appear, it took him the matter of about a month to 6 weeks to organise his players and get them playing his system as a team.
My main criticism of Dean last season was that he was clearly struggling to implement the system he chose (and whether it was the right system approach for the first year back and to avoid relegation). For 34 games we looked a shambles, even accounting for not having the right players brought in and them taking time to settle – they always looked utterly clueless and under prepared, like a bunch of strangers playing for the first time and not really understanding their roles. This is coaching 101 and that’s why I was so scathing match after match because it wasn’t improving, it was visibly getting worse which is another sign that the coach isn’t competent or doing his job properly.
Now after lockdown at least we saw some pragmatism, and to his credit, Dean had clearly worked with the players to be more cagey and not concede so early.
But, in a new season what I think we now need to see is more progress in making a team out of the better players he has at his disposal. Based on how long he has had and the lack of sustained progress so far you can appreciate, even if you don’t agree, that I remain pretty sceptical of his actual ability to do the most critical and accountable part of his job – form a team to get results at the top level.
Time will tell and hopefully as I keep repeating, that the decision from Dean to bolster his coaching support with Craig Shakespeare will bear fruit and that Craig is able to practically implement what Dean couldn’t do in 18 months. I wish them both every success because sorting out the basics across the team is worth more than any number of expensive signings by themselves.
Vital Villa’s Dean Smith Forum Thread