In the world of football, the impact of a coach extends far beyond the matches they oversee. A coach's influence is often measured by the legacy they leave behind, the players they nurture, and the foundation they lay for the club's future.
Dean Smith, the former manager of Aston Villa, is a prime example of a coach who not only transformed a struggling team but also played a pivotal role in the development of key players. Now, as he takes on a new challenge at Charlotte FC, it's worth examining the lasting impact he had at Aston Villa and how his coaching philosophy shaped the careers of some of the club's standout talents.
Aston Villa Transformation Under Dean Smith
When Dean Smith took charge of Aston Villa in October 2018, the club was languishing in the Championship and desperate for a return to the Premier League. Smith's arrival brought about a dramatic change in fortunes. His tactical acumen, man-management skills, and commitment to attacking football revitalized the team and led to promotion through the Playoff Final in the 2018-2019 season.
One of Smith's key strengths was his ability to create a cohesive unit, instilling a sense of identity and purpose in his players. This unity was evident on the pitch as Aston Villa showcased an entertaining and effective style of play, earning them a return to the top flight of English football.
Today, Aston Villa currently sit 3rd in the Premier League, with a lot of Smith’s old core at the helm of their success. Villa to this day continues to benefit from Smith’s individual development of players.
Several talents at Villa under Smith’s guidance flourished and went on to become integral figures not only for the club but also on the international stage.
“If you can improve individuals, then your team improves as a collective,” Smith said on his philosophy of approaching team-wide improvement through individual development.
Chances are if you’ve watched the Premier League in recent times or Argentina’s triumph at the 2022 World Cup, then you’ve heard familiar names such as Jack Grealish and Emiliano Martinez that Smith has helped developed. Grealish is an English attacker for Manchester City, while the other is the notorious Argentinian goalkeeper who made that save in the World Cup Final.
Those are just two of the more well-known names Smith has worked with but many others during his time at Villa have established themselves in the Premier League and for their national teams under his tutelage.
Dean Smith's influence on Jack Grealish's career cannot be overstated. Grealish, a prodigious talent from Villa's youth academy, found a mentor in Smith. Under the manager's guidance, Grealish evolved into the heartbeat of the team and was awarded the captaincy by Smith at just 23 years old. Smith's belief in Grealish's ability to influence games from midfield was pivotal, and the player responded with consistently outstanding performances to lead his team to Premier League promotion.
Grealish's time under Smith's tutelage at Villa laid the foundation for his $127 million move to Manchester City, which at the time, broke the transfer fee paid for an English player. The English midfielder, known for his creativity and flair, became a key figure for both club and country, showcasing the maturity and leadership instilled by Smith.
When Dean Smith signed Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez from Arsenal, few could have predicted the impact he would have. Smith's faith in Martinez paid off handsomely, as the shot-stopper played a crucial role in Villa's defensive solidity.
Under Smith's coaching, Martinez not only solidified his reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League but also earned a regular spot in the Argentine national team and eventually won the 2022 World Cup, making crucial stops throughout the tournament.
Ollie Watkins has Smith’s fingerprints all over his early career. The English striker originally broke through at League Two’s Exeter, where Smith identified the young talent and signed him when coaching for Brentford in the Championship. Immediately, Watkins scored 10 goals in 45 appearances for Brentford in his first season jumping up two divisions, becoming a trusted regular in Smith’s lineups.
Smith moved on to Aston Villa a year later, but Watkins continued to excel in the Championship. So, when Smith’s Villa side looked for reinforcements in the Premier League, they rekindled their relationship at Villa Park. Smith helped Watkins adapt to another jump up the divisions, scoring 14 goals in his first season in the Premier League.
In his next two Premier League seasons, Watkins hit double digit goals both times and is well on his way again with eight goals already this season. He has also since made his English national team debut.
Dean Smith's eye for talent was evident in the signing of Matty Cash from Nottingham Forest. Operating as a dynamic right back, Cash's development under Smith at Aston Villa again showcased the manager's ability to identify and nurture emerging talent.
Cash's performances at Villa earned him recognition, and he became an essential part of the team's defensive setup. His performances earned him a call-up to the Poland National Team, and he’s been a regular international call-up since then.
Scottish midfielder John McGinn blossomed under Dean Smith's guidance. Known for his work rate, vision, and goal-scoring ability, McGinn's role in the midfield became pivotal to Villa's success starting back in the Championship.
His growth as a player under Smith's coaching played a crucial part in the team's return to the Premier League and subsequent consolidation in the top flight. He remains a regular for Villa and is seen as almost a cult hero in both the Villa and Scottish fanbases.
Translating to Charlotte FC
With players like Watkins and Grealish, Dean Smith showcased his ability to nurture young talent as they advance through the divisions, something that is important to the Charlotte FC philosophy.
Young players here will look to move from the Academy to Crown Legacy to the first team, or from the college ranks into the professional game. Smith will be tasked with helping guide those players through those transitions quickly and sustainably, and his track record in this respect is excellent.
Additionally, the Englishman also has the ability to identify high-performing talent and adapt them to the team quickly. Players like Emiliano Martinez and Matty Cash are two prime examples of good players that advanced their careers under Smith. John McGinn is a similar case study, but with a player Smith inherited rather than recruited.
Overall, Smith has a strong reputation for developing individual players while still prioritizing short-term results. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but one that he has found, particularly at Aston Villa.
His quote earlier in this article, then, is worth repeating as a closing thought:
“If you can improve individuals, then your team improves as a collective.”