Venture back a couple of weeks to Villa Park and, with 10 minutes to play against Midlands rivals Wolves, Villa hold a seemingly comfortable 2-0 lead. Seeing that win out would have left Villa with 13 points after eight games, putting them just two points off the top four. Instead, after a shambolic late collapse to Bruno Lage’s side and subsequent defeats to Arsenal and West Ham, Villa’s position is a suddenly precarious one. Rather than gazing up at the top four, they are glancing down at the relegation zone.
Villa are in a terrible run of form, having lost four league games in a row. Greuther Furth, who were promoted to the Bundesliga this season, are the only club in Europe’s top five leagues on a longer losing streak. Villa have not lost five straight league games since February 2017, when they were in the Championship under Steve Bruce. With a trip to Southampton – who have picked up seven points from their last available nine – coming up at the weekend, the pressure is mounting on Dean Smith.
The Villa manager has done an impressive job at the club, but with fans’ expectations and the owners’ aspirations high, he is facing a new challenge in his career. The 50-year-old has been working as a manager for a decade but he has never been sacked, only ever taking positive steps in his career from Walsall to Brentford, and on to his boyhood club.
However, the Villa fanbase seems to be at a tipping point. Those who want Smith out – and there are an ever-growing number – can build a case that goes back before this season. When Villa travelled to Burnley in January, they were eighth in the table and things were looking up. Villa were rampant in the first half at Turf Moor, playing some of their best football in years. The numbers – 11 shots, six on target and 63% possession – did not begin to tell the story of their dominance. They had not even been forced into a tackle, such was their control. The score, however, was just 1-0 to the visitors. Villa ended up throwing the game away, losing 3-2 due to their poor defending from set pieces and crosses.
Their form has continued to be shaky throughout the year. Villa have played 34 matches in 2021 and lost half of them. Their 11 victories in that time suggests it’s not relegation form but, even more alarming than the results has been the dip in their performance levels.
The opponents they have faced in recent weeks have exacerbated matters. Just over a month ago Villa earned a memorable and incredibly rare win at Old Trafford – their first in 12 years. Confidence should have been running high before a run of fixtures against Tottenham, Wolves, Arsenal and West Ham, clubs who shared Villa’s goal of qualifying for the Europa League. Villa fans went into those games knowing they would be a test of the club’s European credentials; they emerged from that run with no points, looking way short of where they hoped to be.
Questions are now being asked about whether Smith is the man to take the club to the next step. While it’s fair to point to the £100m sale of Jack Grealish as a disruptive factor, Villa reinvested almost all of that money on improving the squad. Getting a tune out of the group is Smith’s job. He struggled to find a way of playing without Grealish when he was at the club and that temporary problem has become more serious this season.
It should be noted that injuries and illness have hampered Smith’s chances of building a coherent team. He has already been forced to start 19 different players in the league. He had used more players in the opening two months of this season than he had by February last time out. However, the return from injury of a number of players has almost made matters worse and, a quarter of the way into the season, he does not seem to know his best XI, let alone his favoured formation. There isn’t the faintest glimmer of a recognised playing style and the team look lost on the field.
Villa have scored in all but one of their 12 matches this season, which suggests the squad has the requisite quality, but they are not well organised. The drop off from last season is obvious. Only Manchester City and Chelsea kept more clean sheets than Villa last season, yet only Norwich and Newcastle have conceded more goals this time out. Villa only lost one player in the summer – Grealish, an attacker – so their defensive failures are deeply concerning.
Changes to the backroom staff over the summer have not yet paid off. John Terry and Smith’s long-term right-hand man Richard O’Kelly left, with Aaron Danks and Austin McPhee arriving to join Craig Shakespeare. It looks as if the combination of ideas has proven muddled, with Villa looking hapless, particularly out of possession.
Villa went into the summer transfer window desperately needing to sign a defensive midfielder. Their defence stood tall on numerous occasions last season, but Emi Martínez was inspired and got them out of trouble throughout the campaign. Only two teams outperformed their expected goals against to a greater degree than Villa.
For too long, opponents have found it easy to break through the middle of the pitch and get at Villa’s defence. John McGinn is many things but he is not a disciplined holding midfielder. Douglas Luiz may go on to fulfil that role but, at 23 and with limited English, he is not the consistent leader the team needs to protect their backline. Without a player who can shield the defence single-handedly, Villa have to play a three-man midfield and, subsequently, leave out at least two of their impressive attacking options.
To get the majority of their attackers into the team, Villa should follow the lead of Arsenal and Southampton and play a defensively solid 4-4-2 that can spring into a 4-2-4. In that system, summer signings Leon Bailey, Emi Buendía and Danny Ings would be on the pitch at the same time as Ollie Watkins, but it would require two strong and dependable midfielders.
Knowing they wanted to move to a two-man midfield, Villa identified James Ward-Prowse as the player they needed over the summer but they failed to get a deal over the line. Ward-Prowse signed a long-term deal with Southampton and will be lining up against Villa on Friday night. Villa have to work hard in the January transfer window to find an alternative. In the interim, Smith needs his side to compete with Ward-Prowse, pick up a result and alleviate some of the pressure that is building on him.
They will have to do it without the injured Luiz and Jacob Ramsey in that already suspect midfield, not to mention the now suspended Ezri Konsa and former Saints striker Ings. It’s not raining on Smith right now, it’s pouring. Like his defence, he needs some shelter from the storm.