So, three games in, two points and two goals to show for it. Tension is running high, and supporters keep calling for a 4-4-2. Dean Smith responded ahead of today’s clash with Wolves.
“People keep talking about playing two up front, but it’s very difficult to play two up front and keep Jack Grealish on the pitch. Jack’s one of our talismans, so we worked a situation [at Newcastle] where Jack could play behind Keinan and Ally.
“You have to be careful because there’s a big shift for the midfielders then. Their out ball will always be to the fullbacks. It’s funny. You put two up front and you go from back to front too quickly. I still thought we needed to go through our midfielders, and once we did that, we were much more of a threat.
“What we’ve got to do is convert our chances.”
Villa have been creating chances. And if anyone thinks gilt-edged chances are easy to come by in the Premiership, they’re delusional. Liverpool, City? Sure. Chelsea are getting there. Everywhere else, it’s about converting one or two crucial chances to take hold, and one or two others to see it out. Goals change games, after all.
Creating chances hasn’t been Villa’s problem. Converting them has been. Defending them has been.
Smith, in calling out the the mini-league, confirmed my suspicions about the way he’s approaching the run-in. He’s not trying to go all guns blazing every game like a cup final. The team would never last.
Instead, he’s been trying to pace the side against opponents across the slate of fixtures. Big fish? A draw would be lovely, thank you. We’ll try to tighten up, concede less. Teams that we can play with? We’ll do it differently.
Smith has, in fact, been trying the Big Sam against top sides. The tactics and approach haven’t been the problem. It’s the talent.
Against teams Smith believes Villa can realistically grab three points, he’s thrown the most attacking options on the pitch. He’s simply refused to play 4-4-2 because it lessens the contributions of the best player we have. And he firmly believes, right or wrong, that Villa will live or die on how much Jack can influence a game.
Think about it. How many quality distributors do we have? How many players who can hold the ball, dribble, set the attack or draw fouls and keep possession and slow things down?
I’ve written before about whether the Davis-Samatta alternation was based on fitness, and only having two experienced strikers.
But Smith now is directly addressing the calls we’ve heard. It’s not about fitness, he says. It’s about a system that he believes gives Villa the best chances.
Agree or disagree, Smith, once again, has been honest and said what he thinks. It might be different if he had Guilbert. We might go back to some version of 3-5-2. He obviously doesn’t want to start Elmo, and he wants to tighten up. He’s betting on, and planning for, Villa clawing more points out of the remaining fixtures than the teams around us.
So, does he leave substitutions too late? Maybe. He did bring Elmo in, and he scored the equalizer in a game where we shouldn’t have been behind. There wasn’t much to say anything was going wrong until the side went to sleep and allowed the barcodes to get in front. But did it call for something to change things up before that? Could be.
My guess is that, if we sat down as a group and put the hard questions to Smith off the record, his candor and knowledge of the players and game would probably silence us. He sees what we see. He just knows more, is making his bets, and working with what he’s got. For us, it’s a hobby. For him, it’s his life. And he bleeds claret and blue.
I truly don’t believe he’s an idiot or clueless. I truly believe he’s trying to best employ what he has. He knows the pros and cons much better than we ever will. He lives this 24/7, sees the players continuously, has someone like JT whispering in his ear, a player who’s seen it all. Does that mean we’ll stay up? No. But it’s easy to say, “C’mon Terry. Get them sorted.” But JT is also working with what he’s got. At this level, so much of it is mental. They either have it or they don’t, and you won’t know until they’re under fire. Worse, you can’t just sack them if you don’t have anyone to take their place.
McGinn: ““It’s so important that we cut out losing silly goals and, at the other end, we can’t wait until the other team score to show a bit of belief and cause problems.”
There you go.
Based on the matches since we’ve been back, the failures I see have much more to do with the players and execution than tactics. The chances have been there. They haven’t been taken. The defensive frailties? They’ve been reduced, but we’ve still tuned out at critical moments, despite setting up to do better.
Fact is, you can only take certain players so far. After that, it’s up to them. Work rate, fight, concentration, busting a lung…You either have it or you don’t. Mistakes were made. We’ve got who we’ve got. It’s not changing now.
So, Wolves. They can play rings round us on their day. Better recruitment, simple as. We just need another result to put pressure on the others in the mini-league.
Over to you.