Dean Smith exclusive: Aston Villa manager on his philosophy, coaching roots and fondness for chess

Perceptions of Dean Smith range from old-school boss to master motivator to tight-lipped thinker to chess-inspired tactician.

All of those are partly true. Even the chess bit.

“I played chess with my uncle, every Christmas and holidays where they came round to our house,” the Aston Villa manager tells Sky Sports. “I went into school and became West Midlands school chess champion as well, with our school team.

“I’ve continued playing. It probably gave me more of a tactical mind because of that.”

Smith, who in six games will become their longest-serving boss since Martin O’Neill, does have old-school roots.

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A Villa fan himself, Smith cleaned the seats at Villa Park as a boy, and his playing career as a tough central defender was spent mainly in the third tier with Walsall, Hereford and Leyton Orient. It’s no surprise he captained four of the five clubs he played for.

Then as a coach, he worked his way from head of youth at Walsall to manager, then to Brentford and now Villa. Smith has seen all the wonders of the English football pyramid, but his ideas as a coach started long before, while he was still a player at Leyton Orient having barely turned 30.

Even with four years left of his playing career, Smith was coaching local east London side Glenthorne in 2001, getting a taste for the flexibility needed for the transition from playing.

His blueprint, one ex-Glenthorne player told Sky Sports, was crystal clear even then. Keep the ball on the floor – a tough task given the age group was 11 to 13 – but also: express yourself. Perhaps easier for excitable young kids, less so for professional players fighting for selection and their careers.

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“That was my Thursday night, sometimes I was actually playing on a Saturday and still doing this!” Smith says.

“I think early on the experiences I had were centred around how to improvise well. I’d go into those coaching sessions and think: ‘That’s the session I’m going to have’ and it doesn’t progress how you want to, or three or four people don’t turn up to train, or are injured.

“So improvising and making sure I’m flexible in my sessions is key.”

Smith’s philosophy does not tally with old-school perceptions. The idea of wanting blanket control over everything is dying out, replaced with one-to-one people skills and allowing players room to try things, particularly in the final third.

Even early in his playing career, from centre-back, he felt his horizons could be broadened.

“I remember coming through as a young player myself, and I was told what to do. I was told: ‘When you get the ball, do this. When you get the ball, do that.’ But I always felt I had much more to my game, with what I could see and try.

“I want players to go and express themselves, and give them options for what they can do, but also give them ownership of their game. There’s no right or wrong in the way the game is played.

“Old-school? I hope not! I don’t feel like I’m an old school manager in any sense of the game. I don’t think you can be, because the game moves so quickly.

“There’s certainly nothing wrong with anything old-school, it is sometimes the right school. But you take some of those experiences and use the ones you feel will benefit your team in the future.”

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Tactically, Smith has proved he is adaptable. He spent the first lockdown, a difficult time for the 49-year-old with the death of his father through Covid, watching back every Villa game.

He made the necessary tweaks which eventually saw Villa stay up and progress; their Premier League win percentage since lockdown is 40 per cent, compared to 25 per cent before. They’re scoring slightly more – 1.34 per game compared to 1.21 – but crucially conceding far less – 1.09 per game compared to 2 per game.

Villa’s drastic improvement (PL only)

But aside from tactics, Smith’s focus is on relationships, an under-valued part of management from the outside looking in, simply because it doesn’t have a metric.

“I’ve always said that my role is to make players better; not just as players but as people as well, if I can. I want to help them on their path, on their journey.

“I’ve always believed that if you’re helping individuals to improve, naturally the team is going to improve. That’s been at the forefront of my mind all the time, and to do that you have to create relationships with the players you’re working with, because you have to get the best out of them.”

His Villa side prepare to face Leicester on Super Sunday, live on Sky Sports, having registered 12 clean sheets in 22 games this season and looking for a first top-half finish since 2011.

Their fitness and consistency in personnel has been astounding.

If this season was a game of chess, Villa have done a fine job of protecting their King in Jack Grealish, who has managed to play 99.89 per cent of minutes. Despite a recent hamstring injury to Matty Cash, which will keep him out for a few weeks, the other key pieces are relatively intact.

The youngest side in the Premier League at 25 years and 170 days, Villa have made fewer changes than any side by a distance at 21, and have an impressive injury record, in a relentless season where the absence of key players has already derailed some seasons. Incredibly, nine Villa players have played over 89 per cent of available Premier League minutes, including six Englishmen.

Villa’s mainstays (20/21)

How have they done it?

“Firstly, we’ve got a really good performance team here, who help the team recover well.

“These players just want to keep getting better, and to do that they have to invest in their own selves, their own professionalism, and they’ve certainly done that.

Youthful Villa’s staggering consistency

“The intensity levels in training have not stopped, they’ve been up there. We’ve had a fairly consistent team throughout the season, and that’s because they’ve been playing so well, but the players who haven’t been playing as much have been training well, and are ready to step in when needed.

“It’s massively [the players’] responsibility to keep fit. It’s a big thing for them to take ownership of their bodies and their recovery strategies, and how they live their lives outside of football.

“There’s not as many distractions this season with the lockdown. There’s not a lot the players can go and do to get distracted. But their professionalisms peaks volumes for how we’re doing this season.

“If I feel a player needs resting, I will rest them, but I don’t feel we’ve needed to that often this season, and that’s a credit to the players and their physicality. They are reaching their numbers regularly, and enhancing them too. I’m very pleased with that.”

Former chess champion Smith hasn’t had much time to work on team strategy this season, with a small pre-season, games every three or four days, plus a Covid-19 outbreak which shut the training ground down for 10 days in January.

Training sessions have mainly centred on recovery, but from now until the end of the season, barring any more postponements, Villa should have at least eight full midweeks without disruption to work on plans as they look to break into the European spots, a feat that once seemed an impossibility.

“I think it’s normal in football that pre-season is the time where you can get an awful lot of tactical work done.

“Unfortunately we had a Covid outbreak which shut the club down for 10 days, then we came back and had to play six games in 18 days. It gives you no time to coach or train, and an awful lot of our tactical work was done on video in meetings, and not on the training ground.

“The last couple of weeks has given us that time to get back on the training ground, and concentrate on what we believe we’re good at, what we may have dropped off on in the last few weeks, and work to get that back.”

Wherever Villa finish, Smith is proving himself to be multi-layered as a person and coach. Sitting closer to fourth than the bottom half, with games in hand to boot, Smith’s next move on the board is to attack the European spots and make this an unforgettable season.


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