Operation Smith-ball: Who fits in and who falls out?
After a disappointing defeat at Norwich on Tuesday night, Smith’s fledgling Villa era reads as won one, lost one. The defeat wasn’t necessarily an unexpected one given Norwich’s current form and confidence against our own tactical and philosophical transition post Steve Bruce. The Championship though, is an unforgiving division and 3 games in 6 days (2 away from home) was always set to be a tough introduction to the Villa hot seat for Smith and his new team.
Norwich were however, an intriguing opposition to analyse. They’re a team who play a similar brand of football to that which Smith is trying to instill in our squad and you could tell which team had been building their method for close to 18 months and which had been working at it for 9 days. Given time though, and we too could be playing similarly confident football. Smith’s ideas are beginning to come across which can be seen in our attempts to press in a more organised manner as well as developing a greater competence in our attempts to control possession.
But with all things considered, the most intriguing aspect to consider when a new coach comes into a club with fresh ideas and philosophies is which players can/will best adapt to the new tactics being asked of them.
This is the principle question facing Smith and Villa right now. Smith is having to quickly find out about the squad he inherited as he goes, which means trying them out in game scenarios. During this period results might not always go in our favour, but with every game and every week that passes, Smith is gaining valuable knowledge about the players at his disposal and those that can fit his system or at least, those who can be coached to.
This is where I feel a shift towards the talented youth players in our Under 23s ranks will begin to be implemented as time moves on. Under Bruce our youth players never saw a fair chance at first team opportunities, all too often overlooked in favour of aging, experienced heads. At this stage of their respective careers, these youth players are primed and open to being coached and taught. At this stage in any young footballer’s career, you are at your most sponge-like, amassing ideas, philosophies and techniques from all around you.
For me, the likes of Callum O’Hare and Jake Doyle-Hayes are the most prime candidates to factor into Smith’s plans, having already sniffed first team chances, both players play with a style that naturally fits Smith’s ethos of forward thinking possession and pressing. O’Hare is very much an energetic attacking presence; haranguing defenders, pressing their back line high and forcing errors, plus he is a very capable finisher. Doyle-Hayes has the ability to be a midfield metronome, comfortable in possession and with a good range of passing in his locker. He would work very well in a Smith styled midfield in the mold of previous Smith successes like Ryan Woods and Josh McEachran at Brentford.
Given our more pressing defensive weaknesses, the likes of Jacob Bedeau, who has been impressing at reserve level could also find himself in first team consideration sooner rather than later. In general, the youth teams’ biggest advantage is that they already play a style of attacking football familiar to Smith’s brand.
Within the existing first team set-up one of the biggest beneficiaries may well be Neil Taylor. Smith has brought him back in from the cold, perhaps just to be a round peg in a round hole, but if he can regain his confidence and is coached right then he could yet be a good fit for Smith’s style, given his many years at Swansea playing under similar philosophies. However, finding supporting left back for Taylor remains a pressing concern.
Under the higher intensity style required under Smith, the players who seem set to shine are the fittest and most willing runners. Those would seem to most obviously be McGinn, Bjarnason and former Bruce main man, Elmohamady. Utilising the boundless energy of these players as the team’s beating heart will likely prove crucial moving forwards.
But where there are winners there are also losers, and principle amongst those may well be Bruce’s former general, Mile Jedinak. He is undoubtedly a consummate professional, but he is an aging and increasingly rudimentary presence, unable to work in a high pressing game, or in a strong forward thinking passing game. I can also see Hutton being eased out over the coming weeks and months in favour of the dynamic, younger James Bree. It isn’t that Hutton doesn’t work very hard, or is a weak link in the new set ups, but in the long run it feels like we’re shifting styles and at his age, we have to start looking at a longer term plan. I felt De Laet could have also worked well in this role under Smith, but as we know he was allowed to move to Melbourne City for the immediate future.
The most high profile loser in the new set up though may ultimately turn out to be Jonathan Kodjia. He’s never quite recovered from his first season ankle injury after initially being rushed back into action, and whilst he’s shown signs of his first season form at times, his overall gameplay doesn’t make him the most natural fit for Dean Smith. Playing as an out and out striker would seem his best chance, but then he would be behind Abraham in that regard and possibly even Hogan – given his previous working relationship with Smith. But he certainly doesn’t seem to fit Smith’s idea of a wide player in the way Bruce often made use of him. His goalscoring threat cannot be overlooked and I can see Smith wanting it to work but Kodjia certainly won’t be content to be used as the impact substitute he’s been used as recently.
Ultimately, we’ll see what comes to pass over the coming weeks and months. It might be unwanted to hear, but we may dip down briefly before we start climbing again as we learn and grow in the new set-up. It’s not always a smooth process to undo bad habits and problems left behind, and they’ll take some unlearning, but with time and more importantly patience and support, I have full confidence we’ll find our feet, we just have to brace ourselves for the initial turbulence we’ll likely encounter. Here’s hoping our trip to QPR will be the start.