After a poor start to the season that has seen Aston Villa win just five of their opening 16 games, leading to the sacking of ex-manager Steve Bruce, can last season’s defeated play-off finalists achieve promotion this season?

The odds are stacked against Aston Villa this season with potentially teams from seventeenth position upwards all sharing the same dream as Dean Smith and his side. Aston Villa and their fans have no divine right to expect promotion this season given their poor start, and the Villains are in for a rough season-ending if the club continues to perform as it has done so far this season.

In this analysis, we will look at the impact from Dean Smith thus far this season and whether the boyhood Aston Villa fan can turn the club’s season around and what he must do to achieve promotion this season.

What Went Wrong Under Bruce?

Aston Villa had what can only be described as a horrendous start to the season. Despite a win in the opening two Championship games against Hull City and Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa then went on to record NO wins in their next five games, waiting till mid-September till they recorded their third victory, a 2-0 victory at home to Rotherham. Aston Villa’s problems weren’t as much losing games as they were drawing them, drawing four of the five games between their first two victories and their third in the Championship.

Aston Villa were developing a bad habit of losing concentration, which was more than evident in goals conceded under Steve Bruce. Poor goals conceded, like a stray back pass vs Wigan from centre-back Mile Jedinak, which saw Nick Powell through on goal and score from a ricochet after Villa goalkeeper Ørjan Nyland attempted a clearance which hit the Wigan forward, goes to show how poor Villa were in defence.

Dean Smith Aston Villa Championship Tactical Analysis
A stray pass from Mile Jedinak is pounced on from Nick Powell as Wigan took the lead at Villa Park back in August.

Errors like these proved to be a regular occurrence, and as mentioned above, Aston Villa were becoming a bit of a ‘draw specialist’ under Bruce regularly struggling to claim all three points. Points were being thrown away in games due to sloppy unforced error, and as of the 9th of November, Villa were ranked sixth for goals conceded in the entire Championship.

Conceding sloppy goals took its toll on Aston Villa and Bruce in particular, as the team would regularly drop points against teams which they should’ve been beating. Of the six draws in the 11 games of Bruce’s reign this season, three of them were against sides currently occupying positions in the bottom four, whilst the remaining three were against sides Aston Villa are currently competing with in their fight for Promotion.

Bruce’s final game against Preston, currently placed 21st, was an example of the sloppiness and lack of concentration that existed within his Aston Villa team. Throwing away a 2-0 lead at the then bottom-placed club of the Championship at home is near enough unforgivable, with fans visibly showing their frustration as one fan lobbed a cabbage at Bruce pre-game. Preston North End’s equaliser when Aston Villa were leading 2-1 was potentially the final nail in the coffin for Bruce, and placed extra emphasis on the players losing concentration at key moments in games. In the image below, goalkeeper Mark Bunn is seen getting a hand to Paul Gallagher’s free kick, the Englishman still managed to let the ball find the net, in a moment that shows a real lack of concentration.

Dean Smith Aston Villa Championship Tactical Analysis
Mark Bunn lets Paul Gallagher’s free-kick sneak in after he had got a strong hand to it.

Dean Smith So Far

I was present at Dean Smith’s final Brentford press conference where he said he refused to focus on anything but Brentford, however, stopped short of ruling himself out of the manager’s job at Aston Villa. He did talk about his love for Aston Villa and how his parents had worked as stewards at Aston Villa when he was growing up in the Midlands. What stood out to me was how he constantly said he couldn’t answer questions on if he would take it or not as he had not been offered the job in the first place, which revealed more and more to me that he’d take the job.

Aston Villa have seen a bit of both worlds as they transition from Bruce to Smith and from an unknown style of football into a much more free-flowing style of football, as Smith places more emphasis on getting the ball on the ground and playing football. This is evident in the passing statistics since Smith has taken charge where Villa have developed a more consistent pattern in their build-up. In the 11 games that Steve Bruce managed this season, Villa completed 400 plus passes in seven of those games. However, Dean Smith has completed 434 plus passes in all five of his Championship games since taking over as manager at Aston Villa, showing a more consistent pattern in Smith’s style of play compared to Bruce’s

There has also been a stark difference in the effectiveness of Smith’s style of play which is shown in the pass completion rate of Smith’s current reign compared to Bruce’s 11 game reign this season. Under Bruce, Aston Villa struggled to maintain a pass completion rate of just over 80%, 81.13%. However, under Smith Aston Villa seem to be flourishing in their overall build-up play with a stronger average of 84.94%.

The emphasis on the pass-and-move game is also shown in the number of passes attempted per possession of the ball by Aston Villa. Under Bruce, Aston Villa only managed to average over 5 passes of the ball per possession three times in his 11 Championship games. Dean Smith has clearly come in and changed the style of play for the clubs as Aston Villa have managed over 5 passes of the ball per possession in four of his five games so far, equalling Bruce’s feat in fewer games.

Despite Smith’s best efforts in changing Aston Villa’s style of play, he has failed in improving the concentration of the defence as they find themselves floundering whenever they ball comes within their own 18-yard box. Goals are still being conceded that show a real lack of concentration and lack of defensive nous.

At Norwich away, Aston Villa, once again, found themselves conceding two very avoidable goals from a winning position, as they dropped yet another three points. The first goal shows just how lax the defensive players have been this season, and how much Smith has to do if the club are to gain promotion. A simple corner into the box sees two Aston Villa players fighting for the same ball, with goalkeeper Nyland coming out to punch the ball despite Alan Hutton already fighting over the ball with Norwich striker Jordan Rhodes.

Dean Smith Aston Villa Championship Tactical Analysis
Lack of communication and concentration sees two Aston Villa players go for the same ball as Rhodes heads in to equalise for Norwich.

The second goal goes even deeper into the concept that Aston Villa can’t stay switched on for an entire 90 minutes, as once again a defender is seen losing concentration. In the image detailed below, defender James Chester finds himself goal side of striker Jordan Rhodes as a ball comes into the box. However, despite being in an advantageous position, Chester loses every sense of his awareness and concentration, Rhodes steams in from behind him and pokes the ball in to score the winning goal for Norwich.

Dean Smith Aston Villa Championship Tactical Analysis
James Chester fails to see the run of Jordan Rhodes (marked by the arrow) as he comes from the blind side of the Aston Villa defender to put Norwich 2-1.

What Must Dean Smith Do In Order To Achieve Promotion?

Whilst goal scoring is important, Aston Villa still don’t possess a good enough defence to achieve promotion this season to the Premier League. This is quite surprising given the average age and experience of the defenders Aston Villa possess, with Chester, Neil Taylor and Alan Hutton, all over the age of 29 and with years of Premier League experience. Poor levels of concentration and awareness has seen the Villains concede the simplest of goals that has seen them consistently drop points, as a result. Of the teams who are currently fighting for promotion, seventeenth place and up, Aston Villa have conceded more goals than only three of the 17 teams, Sheffield Wednesday, Wigan and West Brom. This is a real worry for Smith and would need to be addressed, especially given they don’t have the necessary firepower to bail them out of their defensive woes like West Brom, who are bailed out due to their attackers who have scored the most goals in the Championship this season.

Dean Smith Aston Villa Championship Tactical Analysis
Credit: Bein Sports

However, the one air of optimism that Aston Villa and their fan base can grasp on to is the gap in quality between all the teams in the Championship. There is only a six-goal difference between Aston Villa with the sixth worst defence, to the best defences in Birmingham, Norwich and Derby County, all on 17. As well as the gap in defences, there also remains a very small gap in the overall quality of the teams.