Having traded in the relegation bout a year ago for the more comfortable mid-table surroundings in the season just ended, the next step for Smith and his team is to take on a sustained challenge on the first six and European places. History suggests that this may be easier said than done.
“I’m never the type to temper ambitions because our ambitions are to keep improving and growing,” says Smith.
“But I think going up from 17th to 11th is a lot easier than going from 11th to the top six or seven because of the size of the clubs that are there.
“Everyone will say Liverpool and Chelsea have probably struggled a bit this season, but they still finished in the top four at the expense of West Ham and Leicester.
“Their resources are much greater than those of many other clubs in the league. We are always playing to catch up in this direction.
That may be true, but there is no doubt that Villa has gained considerable ground since Smith first walked through the door in October 2018, when he held 15th place in the Championship.
After winning a promotion seven months later with a squad largely supplemented by veterans and lenders, their starting XI is now the youngest in the Premier League with almost all players on long-term contracts, the result of a informed and sometimes underestimated recruitment carried out. possible thanks to the support of billionaire owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens.
Their presence has seen Villa spend over £ 260million on players since returning to the top flight and the long term ambition to break into the top flight and qualify for the Champions League is clear. It does come with a healthy dose of realism, however, and the acceptance that getting there and staying there takes time and patience.
The key word used around the Bodymoor Heath club training ground is ‘strategic’. Villa is confident they have the right plan in place, but knows it cannot be executed overnight, even though they are currently ahead of schedule.
“Our job now is to try to progress and pass (those clubs above) which is a tough thing to do,” Smith continued.
“But there is a plan in place and some things will happen faster than others.
“We didn’t expect to be promoted this first season, for example, but we did. Our job then was to stay upright and we managed to do that and progressed further. It will be a matter of progression, but we also understand that it takes time to be part of this elite group. “
A good job in the transfer window will again be key if Villa is to continue to climb and build on a campaign that has faltered with the promise of what could happen to us. Although a final 11th position looks a bit disappointing, their 55-point tally would have been enough to finish in the first half every other season since 1994. Wolves finished seventh and qualified for the Europa League in 2019 afterwards. picking up only two more. points.
When looking for rookies who can help them take the next step, Smith and the club’s recruiting team first talk about finding the ‘ideal spot’ for British players with prior Premier League experience, in order to narrow down any risk of adaptation. After that, the focus shifts to those who have played in the top five European leagues.
Villa certainly scored big points last summer with his four permanent rookies: Ollie Watkins, Matty Cash, Bertrand Traore and Emiliano Martinez all making great contributions, the latter winning the Fan Player of the Season. Again, it’s about adding quality rather than quantity. Norwich City playmaker Emi Buendia and Burnley winger Dwight McNeil are among the targets under consideration, with the main aim being to ease the creative burden on Jack Grealish.
“We gave up overwhelmingly when Jack came out of the team in terms of creativity,” Smith admits. “We know that’s an area we need to improve on to help Jack when he’s playing or if he has to miss a game or two.
“We think we have a good team in place. Looking back, we had 13 new signings this first summer before the Premier League. It’s too much if you want to be successful.
“We had four new permanent signings at the start of this season and Ross Barkley on loan. We thought it would help us progress again. We believe it is once again important to go for quality over quantity this year. “
Smith is skeptical of whether the financial crisis caused by the pandemic will mean there will be more bargains available for clubs with deep pockets.
But he added, “We are still looking for targets and hope we can go and do some good business, which is what we will be looking to do.
“We have a shopping list and we will try to invest wisely. We proved last season with those we recruited – like Ollie Watkins, Emi Martinez, Bertrand Traore and Matt Cash – that we are quite astute. Hope we can do more of the same.
In addition to attracting new players, there is also an expectation of improvement from those already at the club.
Smith cites Matt Targett, one of the summer 2019 nominees, as a prime example. Often appearing out of depth in her debut season, the left-back underwent a remarkable transformation in her second, finishing her as Villa’s only outfield to start every Premier League and win the player’s title. of the players’ year.
Ezri Konsa is another to have raised the first question marks, as the young center-back may consider himself a little unlucky not to be part of England’s Euro 2020 squad. He and Targett have recently signed long new agreements.
“I have always said that the most important thing for me is to make sure that we improve the players and I think we have done that on a regular basis,” said Smith.
“Our job is to make them better. If they get better individually, then we get better as a team. When we get better as a team, we win more football matches. It’s that simple.
“That’s why we have a younger team because we know these players will improve, getting them longer term contracts is really important.
“It’s good to bring in young players and strengthen their value. But I hope the players come to Aston Villa like Ezri Konsa and spend six, seven or eight years there.
“If they do, it means the club is making progress. It is an important part of the plan for the future. “
In the background, meanwhile, sit Sawiris and Edens, owners who have said little but delivered a lot since rescuing the club from the brink of administration three summers ago.
A fanbase that has seen former goalkeeper Randy Lerner spend big to lose courage and interest when the difficulty of cracking the Premier League’s top flight became evident, could be forgiven for remaining a little suspicious.
Yet the fact that a good chunk of the money has been invested in bricks and mortar, with the construction of a new state-of-the-art high performance center at Bodymoor and the investment in an academy that just won the FA Youth Cup, speaks of a longer term vision.
Leicester, where infrastructure development has also been key to success, is touted as the role model.
“I think they (the owners) are very astute business people with a strategic plan,” says Smith.
“Part of that plan is to go compete in the upper echelons of this league. This is where they want the club to go and they want to develop the Aston Villa FC brand across the world. They are also aware that it takes time.
“I talk to them regularly during our board calls and they are very ambitious, but the key word is strategic, they develop a plan and follow up.
“Every Villa fan can feel in good hands with these owners. Everything they said they would deliver, they held.
“You look at the academy – and it’s nobody’s business – but where it was three years ago, until it is now, it’s a place people want to come to.
“We must continue to progress and develop and continue this increase. “