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Late debriefings, Zoom and barbecues … how Dean Smith led Aston Villa to the edge of safety

The Aston Villa players, of course, didn’t expect it to be midsummer for 1 hour of match briefs and team barbecues at a Birmingham hotel, or hours in the video room to analyze how Lazio and Liverpool defend.

Nor that those hours in each other’s company would put them in control of their own Premier League fate on Sunday.

The table didn’t look good before football started again. Second bottom, with the most porous defense and no firepower to speak of.

Dean Smith has turned Aston Villa season around and they are now on the verge of survival

Dean Smith has turned Aston Villa season around and they are now on the verge of survival

But a two-goal Saturday win in West Ham will likely be enough to keep them going and a draw would do the same if Watford didn’t win at Arsenal. This new landscape was not entirely accidentally created.

The managers who have had the most success in the past few months have generally been the ones using the forced break to make changes to their team’s structure and methods.

Dean Smith’s work at Villa was perhaps the most substantial of them all. Smith, like Graham Potter in Brighton, felt that the preseason had not given him enough time to fully prepare for this season.

Villa’s outdated Championship squad was rebuilt, with 11 players leaving and 12 entering after promotion last summer – some arriving just two days before the new season.

Villa's Premier League future is in their own hands as they enter the last day of the season

Villa's Premier League future is in their own hands as they enter the last day of the season

Villa’s Premier League future is in their own hands as they enter the last day of the season

Spending £ 120 million was no small feat. The average fee was approximately £ 9 million. Some believed that the club, which finished fifth in the championship, was promoted too early.

The 100 days between their 4-0 defeat to Leicester City in March and the restart at home to Sheffield United was an opportunity to make up for the lost time.

Smith joined each of his team to conduct individual performance assessments. He set up small groups of players to watch videos of Villa games together and report on what they thought might have been different.

“They told us what they thought was right and what was not,” Smith said Friday. “When we got back, we had an agreed plan for what we wanted to do. If it’s an agreed plan, I can go nail someone and say, “Wait a minute, you agreed.”

“We sure did! We’ve done a lot of video coaching that I never thought I should, through Zoom calls. ‘

Smith had his men spend hours in the video room analyzing how teams like Lazio defend

Smith had his men spend hours in the video room analyzing how teams like Lazio defend

Smith had his men spend hours in the video room analyzing how teams like Lazio defend

Without great clout, he concluded that it was vital to make Villa more robust and effective during the break, and sent the team videos of teams whose defenses he deems exemplary. He, instead of assistant John Terry, drove this defensive focus.

Opta data shows that they’ve had an average of eight times fewer shots per game since the reboot and improved their clean sheet ratio by nearly 20 percent.

The 100-day hiatus also created time to team up with Douglas Luiz to take on the defensive midfield role he was appointed last summer for £ 15 million from Manchester City.

A Portuguese translator has been drafted to help the Brazilian with his English skills, but the break has also made time for the 22-year-old’s football briefing. His contribution since the reboot was a big part of Villa’s recovery.

So Smith decided to keep the players together more than any other Premier League team and to generate a tournament mentality.

Each game – at home or on the road – lasted two nights at a team hotel, with barbecues and debriefings until the early hours.

Smith kept the players together as much as possible to generate a tournament mentality

Smith kept the players together as much as possible to generate a tournament mentality

Smith kept the players together as much as possible to generate a tournament mentality

“Being together was the best way to do it,” said Smith. “It feels like we’ve been in a tournament. The players and the staff haven’t seen much of their families, but we thought it would help us.

“After an evening game, we would debrief at 1:00 AM and then quickly move on to the next one.”

It helps that he shows such a remarkable mental balance because there have been some dark moments. The criticism was most severe when Villa lost to Chelsea three weeks ago at home, with no offensive threat.

Manchester United’s 3-0 home loss seemed to be the beginning of the end. But those who have worked with Smith this season describe an equanimity amid the highs and lows of football.

The contrast with Watford – whose football has been terrible since the reboot – is not to be missed. Watford’s decision to fire manager Nigel Pearson just before Villa’s home victory over Arsenal seems extremely bad, although a close-up opinion of Pearson suggests he’s a tough person.

Danny Welbeck’s overhead kick, which brought in three home points against Norwich last month, gave Pearson a chance to celebrate and motivate the player in public. But when asked if the target proved that Welbeck was world-class, he chose to pick holes in the question.

“You seem to have decided what to write,” he replied.

Ben Foster admitted that the team’s confidence was “ insanely low ” after the 4-0 midweek defeat at home to Manchester City Watford plunged into the relegation zone.

Earlier this season, Smith described Villa’s habit of ‘catastrophizing’ when they fall behind and it is at times like this that a 33-year career in football helps.

Villa's future remains on edge with the club making plans for both scenarios

Villa's future remains on edge with the club making plans for both scenarios

Villa’s future remains on edge with the club making plans for both scenarios

The 49-year-old recalled on Friday the last day of the 2005-06 season as an assistant boss to Orient, who needed a win for promotion.

They understood and brought Oxford to the conference. Four years later, he lost his Walsall match to Southampton but avoided relegation from League One due to results elsewhere.

Villa’s future remains on the cutting edge. The club has already made plans for a Premier League and Championship future.

Saturday night Smith sleeps soundly, more than can be said for his wife. “She seems to be the one to suffer the most from the pressure and stress levels and I don’t think she watched any of the last six games!” he said. “Our daughter has to tell her with a warning on the phone.”

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