Dean Smith was sacked by Aston Villa after a run of five consecutive Premier League defeats threatened the club with a relegation battle. It is difficult to recall a dismissal that must have been undertaken with quite such a heavy heart, or indeed a manager, who was so adored by both fans and players, losing his job.
Smith did an unbelievable job at Villa and ranks among their best managers in the Premier League era. The club were 14th in the Championship when he arrived, seemingly set for a prolonged stay in the second tier with Jack Grealish surely soon to be sold. Three years later, Villa are an established Premier League team with ambitions of qualifying for Europe.
In that respect he is a victim of his own success, because it is fair to say Smith is not quite at the required level to push Villa into the elite. His tactical management was always a little rough around the edges, hence why Villa so consistently struggled without Grealish, and having won 40 points from 35 games this calendar year it was clear the club needed a new direction.
It goes without saying Villa have to get this next appointment right. The ambitious new owners have shown their ruthless side, they will make proactive choices, but goodwill towards them will evaporate should their second appointment be less successful than the first.
Here’s a look at the top candidates:
The heavy favourite is Steven Gerrard, whom Christian Purslow worked with when the Aston Villa CEO was managing director at Liverpool. The two are close friends, which might make the Villa job particularly appealing to Gerrard as a stepping stone on his inevitable path to the Anfield hot seat. Certainly Villa have the ambition and the finances to rise to another level.
But Gerrard is a gamble despite having won the Scottish Premiership title with Rangers last season. He has only been in management for 18 months and is still honing his skills, while a one-year education at Liverpool as under-18s manager does not necessarily indicate he had enough time to learn the ropes. Jumping from Scotland to England is a big step and Villa will undoubtedly be taking a risk.
Then again, it is hard not to get excited by the prospect of an up-and-coming manager like Gerrard coaching these players. His record-breaking title triumph at Rangers showed there is meticulous detail in his methodology while a good run in the Europa League suggested he can transfer his skills to the challenges of different competitions.
John Terry left Villa in the summer in order to pursue a managerial career that hasn’t even started yet. His inability – or unwillingness – to land a starting job in the Championship or lower is a cause for concern, and Villa should be wary of approaching someone whose only qualification for the role is having worked at the club before.
In fact, his association with the Smith era probably works against him. Villa are looking to make a clean break, as the dismissal of Craig Shakespeare – Smith’s assistant – would suggest, and so there is no reason to hire a completely unproven Terry considering his big influence on Smith in 2020/21.
Only a disastrous hiring process would lead to Terry.
Paulo Fonseca is linked to pretty much every Premier League job that comes up, and it is easy to see why; he has the air of a sophisticated European manager, even if his achievements are questionable. But Villa could do a lot worse then hiring a man who was on the shortlist at Tottenham Hotspur before Fabio Paritici decided to move in a different direction.
He generally performed above expectations in Portugal, although his two-year stint at FC Porto went surprisingly badly, before making a name for himself at Shakhtar Donetsk and Roma. In Ukraine, Fonseca won the double and took Shakhtar to the last 16 of the Champions League, and then in Italy he reached the semi-final of the Europa League but struggled domestically.
There is a hint of Marco Silva about the whole thing; a manager achieving slightly higher than average but never really pulling up trees.
The Denmark manager has been praised heavily for taking his country to the semi-finals of Euro 2020, and rightly so. They were superb to watch, clearly coached to a higher standard than most international teams and unlucky not to progress further. However, there is a huge chasm between international and domestic management and it would be naive of Villa not to see that.
Kasper Hjulmand did well in the Danish top flight, winning the Championship with FC Nordsjælland, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has shown that success in a smaller league has little bearing on the Premier League. Hjulmand’s only top job was with Mainz 05, a stint that lasted just nine months as the German outfit slumped to 14th in the first season post Thomas Tuchel.
Hjulmand has made Villa’s shortlist, according to multiple reports, but that is only because he is well known by Villa sporting director Johan Lange.
Among the various other options Lucien Favre 17.016/1 probably expects a job higher up the league table, while Ralph Hasenhuttl 15.014/1 and Roberto Martinez 10.09/1 would be difficult to extract from Southampton and Belgium respectively. That just leaves Frank Lampard 13.012/1 and Graham Potter 12.011/1 to consider.
Lampard is likely to go to Norwich, and considering how poorly organised his Chelsea team were even that is probably a bad appointment. Villa won’t stoop to that level. Potter, however, is a fantastic coach who looks destined for the top of the game, although mid-season is probably the wrong time for him. A good start at Brighton in 2021/22 suggests Potter won’t want to move clubs at the moment.