Operation Smith-ball: Licence to Thrill
If I was to say the last couple of months have been refreshing, I would almost certainly be guilty of making the most extreme understatement of the year.
The arrival of Dean Smith has given Villa Park a team with an unrelenting attacking intent – rather than the pragmatic approach of his predecessor, an unfashionable approach in the modern age.
Our last two games against arch-rivals Birmingham City and cross-midland team Nottingham Forest have highlighted our obvious strengths whilst exposing concerning flaws. But it’s all part of the ride.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The Good in Villa’s play is actually the causation of The Bad and The Ugly, but I’ll cover that later.
Villa have notched 9 goals in our last two games – some remarkable figures considering we only scored 15 at home in our previous 8 before that. There are a few reasons to this:
Regardless of whether the stats prove me correct, our use of the wide spaces seems to have improved with the full-back:winger relationship blossoming. It’s evident to see that the static stacking of the two is no longer a problem – this has been accomplished by either of the two drifting infield to allow a pocket to be created by the vacating defender. We see this from Taylor supplying El Ghazi on Wednesday as well as our first two goals against the Blues.
Another positive, in part, is the utilisation of Conor Hourihane as an ultra deep midfielder. I’m not the biggest fan of the Irishman but his second half performance against Birmingham City was exceptional. It would be fair to say he isn’t the quickest of players so the hard tracking is left to those more able. Hourihane’s ball playing ability however means Smith’s plan to use him as the distributor in playing from the back allows the the front five to stay up field, not to mention the freedom it hands to our full-backs in going forward knowing they have effectively a third centre-back to cover. This tactic was used less against Forest which was one reason I thought hindered us. I personally think the absence of Birkir Bjarnason may turn to bite us as he provides the better defensive cover.
I said I would come to it later and that being said, our attacking threat is also our own biggest threat.
A high-pressing attacking side will inveitably encounter issues with teams able to transitiin quickly after gaining possession but more so when the defensive line has been suspect all season, especially under a manager previously renowned for his solidity in Steve Bruce.
High-pressing full-backs leave space open behind on the flanks which Forest exploited at will midweek – even Smith admitted post-match this as a consequence of our attacking intent. I will undoubtedly trigger some who read the length of this when I say James Chester has been our poorest defender, and for the most part that is down to our desire to play with ball at feet, from the back. He looks incredibly uncomfortable playing this way, as evidenced in misplaced passes leading to goals, namely against QPR in a 1-0 loss. By no means do I think he is a bad defender but his positioning has been questionable this season and he has been overshadowed by centre-half partner Axel Tuanzebe.
Finally, onto the ugly. Ørjan Nyland. I tried to be fair but 0 saves and 0 catches is quite frankly a joke.
Where do we go now?
Onwards and upwards is the simple answer.
The lack of Bjarnason as said before will be a huge miss in my opinion but January needs to be made the most of in finding defensive cover.
Recalling Mitchell Clark from what seems to be a great loan-spell at Port Vale woupd be a great move as cover for Chester and Taylor as well as Jed Steer in spite of a mixed time with Charlton Athletic.
Smith may not have the funds in the upcoming window but it’s clear he has reinvigorated the squad and more importantly, the Villa faithful. The thing that excites me the most is his relentless yearning for more, even commenting that the 4-2 victory over Blues wasn’t good enough in terms of performance.
Defensive frailties will be a given this season which Dean Smith seems content with in the knowledge that our attacking threat is now one to be feared, but I would rather watch a 5-5 draw with promotion rivals than a drab 1-0 against league-fodder.
This is Dean Smith’s world and we’re all just along for the ride.