There are officially two D. Smiths running the show now. Mere days after the inevitable departure of our beloved overlord Daniel Farke, former Aston Villa manager Dean Smith has walked in through the yellow and green doors of Carrow Road in an attempt to steer the Canaries off the foot of the Premier League table and out of the relegation zone. On paper, it seems a wise appointment. Smith is a manager who knows the league well, has played against Norwich on a number of occasions, and likes to play a pragmatic yet dynamic style of football, well-suited to the framework that Daniel Farke established during the first four years of his spell at the club.
But what exactly does this appointment mean for Norwich? Is Smith the right man to take the team forwards? Will he be able to get the best out of the players at his disposal, particularly Billy Gilmour and Todd Cantwell? And what happens if Norwich slip back down to the Championship at the end of the season? All great questions, all worthy of answers through some tasty analysis. So sit back and relax as we explore Dean Smith the man, Dean Smith the manager, and Dean Smith the mystery on this crazy deep dive of an article.
Who is Dean Smith?
This is a pretty self-explanatory point, but Dean Smith is a 50-year-old manager who had a respectable playing career in the lower leagues of the English game, particularly with Walsall and Leyton Orient. After hanging up his boots following a brief spell at Port Vale, Smith took up roles in the youth setups at Orient, and then Walsall. In 2011, he was appointed as first-team coach of the Saddlers, and over the course of four years established them as a League One outfit on a shoestring budget, and led them to the final of the EFL Trophy in 2015. This impressive form saw him step up to the Championship with Brentford. Again working with a minimal budget, Smith oversaw the Bees to 9th, 10th, and 9th place finishes, gaining the attention of many admirers for developing an attacking style of play, and harboring future Premier League talent such as James Tarkowski and Ollie Watkins.
This included the attention of his boyhood club Aston Villa, and was appointed manager in 2018. In his first season in charge, Smith guided the Villains back to the top flight after a three-year absence. With the talismanic Jack Grealish leading the team on, Smith’s side narrowly staved off relegation in their first Premier League campaign, followed by an 11th place finish the following year. That campaign behind closed doors included a spectacular 7-2 thrashing of champions Liverpool, a double over Arsenal, and a final-day victory over Chelsea. Spurred on by Grealish, signings such as Emiliano Martínez, Tyrone Mings, and Smith’s former striker Watkins made their mark on the Premier League in some style.
This season, it was expected that Aston Villa would push on and continue their impressive from, and aim for a top-half finish. They brought in a wealth of attacking talent, including (ironically) Emiliano Buendía from Norwich, Leon Bailey from Bayer Leverkusen, and Danny Ings from Southampton. However, things haven’t worked out the way many would have anticipated. Following a 2-1 over Manchester United at Old Trafford, Villa have lost their last five matches, resulting in Smith getting the sack. A week later, he finds himself in the Carrow Road hotseat.
Is he the right man?
Naturally, hiring a manager so recently sacked from a Premier League team will raise some questions. Is it ambitious or wise to hire someone who had such a talented squad and has seen them struggle since the sale of captain Grealish? If Norwich are serious about survival, why would we want the leftovers from a fellow (possible) relegation rival?
Yes, it’s true that Villa have spent big and got little reward from it this season. But I feel that the blame doesn’t really lie with Smith, for two reasons. One; he’s had to manage the squad without Jack Grealish for the first time. Since giving him the armband, Grealish has been unplayable, earning a £100 million to Manchester City and becoming a semi-regular figure in the England team. Grealish was at the heart of everything Villa did well going forward during his three years under Smith. He peaked last season with 6 goals and 12 assists, with Villa only winning 3 league games during the 11 which he was injured. Everything good came through him, and Villa were always going to feel his inevitable absence.
It’s been a struggle to replicate this form without him, and this has been reflected in recent results. It also brings me to the second point: an overload of attacking talent, but no room to accommodate them while also replacing Grealish. Buendía has been placed in the no.10 role for much of his playing time this season, even though he was at his brilliant best last season cutting in from the right flank. Then you also have Bailey and Bertrand Traoré to accommodate out wide, whilst also trying to fit Ings and Watkins into a 4-2-3-1, with the added dilemma of working John McGinn into the midfield and bringing the prodigal Jacob Ramsey into the first team. Essentially, Smith appeared pressured to fit too many names into his starting XI, almost reminiscent of the current Manchester United or Galactio-era Real Madrid sides, without having the proper resources to replace Grealish and play the football he wants to.
The owners at Villa are clearly ambitious people, and their appointment of Steven Gerrard as Smith’s replacement shows a vision that having an England legend as manager will lend more status and credibility to them as a Premier League sides, regardless of the results he will bring. Norwich almost went down this route with Frank Lampard, before the former Chelsea manager pulled out of negotiations. Smith has been described in recent days as a “pragmatist,” owing to the fact that he may not be the most glamourous manager around, but at least he brings results.
In this regard, he’s exactly what Norwich needed. A manager with an established record in the Premier League who plays a good attacking style of football, and who can get the best out of the talent he has if he’s given the freedom to do so. Given Norwich’s position in the table, he’s arguably the best the Canaries could have got at this point, and his sacking couldn’t have come more conveniently.
So, what will Smith bring to Norwich?
Of course, this is a question that will only be answered once Smith has overseen his first few games in the dugout – all winnable fixtures, with home ties against Southampton and Wolves before a trip to the north to face Newcastle. Three wins here and suddenly the table will look very different.
But how will Smith seek to accomplish this? Well, Norwich went into the international break off the high of gaining their first win of the season against Brentford, so despite Farke’s sacking there is still plenty of momentum to ride on. He’s overseen a couple of training sessions and done all his introductory media stuff, and it looks as though he’s settled in quickly, and should already have an idea of the sort of team he wants to play. As previously mentioned, not only does he have a squad of players riding high off a first win of the season, he’s also got Gilmour and Cantwell looking to make an impact. Gilmour especially given Scotland’s results in the break.
I think everyone is hoping that Smith will set up his team to go on the front foot, get stuck in and drive forward at pace, making the most of his best creative and defensive talents. Given that the spontaneous 5-3-2 Farke adopted for a few games was set up to not lose but also not win, I also think everyone can hope for more defensive stability under big Dean. His Villa side did have their defensive lapses, but they were overall solid at the back, built on a foundation of the resurgent Martínez in goal, the indomitable Mings alongside Ezri Konsa, and the dangerous forward runs of Matt Targett on the left and Poland’s finest, Matty Cash on the right. Hopefully we see something similar at Carrow Road, but with less of a reliance on Tim Krul to bail us out of trouble. City have got some fine attacking full-backs in the guise of Aarons, Giannoulis, and Williams, and hopefully we see a successful centre-back pairing formed between one of the hard nuggets and one of the ballers. My preference is a Hanley-Omobamidele pairing, but feel free to disagree with me. You probably will.
Only time will tell whether Dean Smith will be a success at Carrow Road. He’s a surprise appointment to be sure, but a welcome one. I think for now City fans have faith in a man with a proven Premier League track record, who when given his chance can get the best out of his players, and a humble pragmatist with a winning mentality.
Come on, Dean. Let’s be ‘aving ya.