Once Dean Smith’s Villa had fired Aston Villa back into life this season after a dire start under Steve Bruce, it was hoped that he could get Villa in the play-off spots by the turn of the year, thus providing a solid base to kick-on their promotion push from in 2019.
Approaching the new year, Villa have stuttered slightly in recent matches, unable to close out games they looked good for three points from. Currently, they sit 9th in the Championship table, five points off the play-off spots and 11 points off the automatic promotion spots.
After a 3-0 away win at Derby helped instil the belief behind a seven-game unbeaten run and got supporters thinking about promotion again, any thoughts of automatic promotion suffered a reality check recently from Leeds United at Villa Park.
There’s also been too many draws, which has led to Smith winning less than half (six) of his 13 games as Villa’s Head Coach.
Villa fans will point to how many of the draws could and should have been three point outcomes.
The handball injustice of the 2-2 draw at the Hawthorns, the inability to put 10-men Forest to the sword at 5-4, and letting a 2-0 lead slip at home to Leeds, have all shaped their current moderate league position.
It’s easy to hone in on Villa’s misfortune and forget about the opposition’s close shaves though, when evaluating dropped points.
While Villa would have hoped to beat Preston away from home, the 1-1 draw was fair enough. Despite Birkir Bjarnason’s near miss, ultimately Villa probably didn’t deserve to win the game. Also, a better penalty from Wilfred Bony would have denied Villa a Boxing Day win at Swansea.
Smith’s Villa Record
When you consider Villa’s record solely under Dean Smith this season, the fact of the matter is they are actually outside play-off form at the moment.
In mitigation, when you look at the current league table, bar games against Bolton, Preston and Swansea, all Smith’s Villa fixtures have been against teams in the top half of the league.
In that respect, he’s made distinct progress with the same set of players on what Bruce managed in fixtures largely against the bottom-half teams in the league.
That said, the likes of Hull City, Birmingham City and QPR have all performed better than Villa since Smith has been in charge and they have all beaten some of the top teams in the league.
Last season, Fulham, the team who made an amazing recovery after a poor start to the season and gained promotion, faced the top six Championship teams in succession. They won five and drew one of those fixtures, which essentially catapulted them into the play-off spots.
In terms of promotion, there is a ‘do or do not’ mentality to the process. Trying and improving don’t really enter into the equation in the final analysis.
So what issues have held Smith back, so far?
For starters, Villa have had good work undone by the issue that MOMS previously predicted would cost Bruce his job, the poor nature of their backline and keeper.
Matters should improve in 2019 on that front, as Smith has already begun to address this weakness prior to the January window opening by calling back Tommy Elphick from his loan at Hull and hopefully upgrading the goalkeeping department with the signing of Lovre Kalinić.
Injuries have also compromised Smith, trimming the available squad size the Villa Head Coach has had to work with, especially recently when Villa have faced three games within the space of a week and the intense nature of the Christmas holiday period.
Such injury problems aren’t exclusive to Villa though.
Still, there has been the matter of Jack Grealish’s absence. Not every team has a Grealish-type player in their ranks, who offers another level of invention going forward and a spark to change the direction of any game.
Smith had been successfully working on increasing the impact of Grealish in games, by encouraging him to make runs beyond Villa’s centre-forward. Certainly he seems to have enjoyed linking up with Tammy Abraham.
While he’s a big miss, Villa have more than enough attacking talent in their ranks to make the play-offs, even if Grealish was out for the rest of the season. So, the media and supporters shouldn’t put too much onus on his recent absence. After all, at least two teams will get promoted this season from the Championship without Grealish in their team.
That said, Villa, with defensive reinforcements, a stable keeper and the return of Grealish, will present Smith with one of the very best teams in the division at his disposal.
Despite what has to be considered an ok start at best in terms of the goal of promotion, Smith has importantly already got Villans believing again in their team.
While promotion is far from guaranteed, expect an improvement in results and hopefully an exciting finish to the season.
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