Five games. Three wins. And three clean sheets. Life has begun in a near-perfect fashion for Dean Smith at Aston Villa.
One month into his role as Villa manager and Smith is not only producing positive results, but he has also transcended the club’s style of play from a robust defensive outfit into a high-pressing attack-minded team in a small amount of time.
Here, we analyse the changes Smith has been making, back to front, since his arrival:
For the first time under Smith’s reign, centre-back pairing Axel Tuanzebe and James Chester began to stand on the edge of their six-yard box when goalkeeper Orjan Nyland was preparing to take a goal kick.
It is pretty evident that Smith is slowly implementing his tactics into the side rather than making full-blown changes. This is ostended in his decision to split the two CBs five games into his reign, rather than straight away. Added to that, goalkeeper Nyland isn’t exactly passing out from the back on every occasion. As you can see from the image below, he made a total of 30 passes against Derby, with a fair chunk of those passes defined as being either medium or long range.
In the next illustration below, you can see the high line Villa are now initiating under Smith’s stewardship. Both Villa CB’s are close to the halfway line, whilst anchor-man Conor Hourihane has been assigned to play as the deepest midfielder.
Hourihane’s job requires him to play in front of the defence, and then drop in between Tuanzebe and Chester when they split. Additionally, whilst the Irishman can get forward, his main objective is to play short, medium and long range passes into teammates, who are in a more advanced position.
Above, is a graphic showing the 50 passes he made during the win at Pride Park, and how he is playing the role Smith assigned Ryan Woods to during his time at Brentford.
Another attacking change Smith has added to this promotion-chasing Villa side is instructing his players to press high up the pitch. In various examples below, you will see just how high Villa players are pressing up the pitch, in order to, a) force the opposition into a mistake, b) force the opposition to pass the ball quicker, or c) regain possession high up the pitch.
In the first illustration, you can see midfield duo John McGinn and Jack Grealish pressing centre-back Fikayo Tomori practically in his own area in order to force him into a mistake.
Tomori’s forced clearance ends up falling to Hourihane, who as mentioned above, is playing that anchor role for Villa. As a result, Smith’s side win the ball high up the pitch and from there they can attempt to hurt the opposition.
In the next image, Villa players (Hourihane, Albert Adomah and McGinn) are surrounding Tom Lawrence high up the pitch as the Welshman loses possession of the ball in his own half.
What was clear during the game against the Rams was that Villa were preventing Derby from doing what they wanted to – pass out from the back. In the next image, midfielder Grealish is one of the more advanced players as he, along with his teammates, is forcing defender Richard Keogh to pass the ball back rather than forwards.
Despite holding a 2-0 lead on the road with ten minutes left on the clock, Villa, and in particular, McGinn, still opted to press high up the pitch. Rather than sitting back, the Scotland international wins the ball off the Derby defence and then wins the foul. That subsequent free-kick led to Villa scoring their third goal of the match.
In the short time Smith has been at the club, the off-the-ball work from the Villa players has seen them be aggressive in the final third of the pitch.
Below are two examples of former Hibernian man McGinn pressing the ball high up the pitch. In the first example, he is doing it within the first few minutes of the match against Bolton.
The same can be seen during Villa’s trip to Loftus Road over a fortnight ago. McGinn, once again, is the man leading the charge.
As previously mentioned, Hourihane was unlisted as Villa’s anchor-man in front of the defence, with Tom Huddlestone deploying a similar role for Derby. However, it was pretty clear that the away side hard targeted the former Tottenham man as they prevented him from starting attacks deep into his own half.
In the pictures below, Grealish was evidently given the task of pressing the defensive-minded midfielder every time he got on the ball.
As a result of that, Huddlestone lost the ball a number of times in his own area as is proven by the image below.
Attack, Attack, Attack
With risk comes rewards and that mentality is exactly what Smith has installed into this Villa side. During their last two games, the risk of overloading in the final third or midfielders running beyond strikers has resulted in McGinn and Grealish getting on the scoresheet.
In the first image, you can see Grealish on the shoulder of the Bolton defender, he is in areas of the pitch he wouldn’t normally have taken under Bruce. Also, number 7 McGinn is beyond striker Abraham further emphasising Villa’s attacking mindset. In this instance, Grealish goes on to open the scoring for Villa.
In the next images below, you will see the risk Villa are now taking in order to be ruthless and kill off the game.
As for McGinn, throughout the match against Derby, he was given the licence to act like a striker or make runs into the penalty area. At first, he wasn’t rewarded, but in the second half, his constant runs in the penalty area resulted in him heading home Bolasie’s cross.
In these opening five matches, Smith has worked wonders with the Villa squad, changing their style and producing positive results. In the next six weeks, the Midlands outfit have a number of big matches coming up which will test their mettle. Positive results are needed and if Villa can produce them then they will look very dangerous under Smith’s new attacking style.