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Villa boss Smith points to legend McGrath as an example for Konsa

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Aston Villa manager Dean Smith. Photo: PA

Aston Villa manager Dean Smith. Photo: PA

Aston Villa manager Dean Smith. Photo: PA

Isn't it grand to see Aston Villa acting like a big club again? It is not just about spending money, which any rich fool can do, it is about investing in the right people for the right reasons. With Dean Smith in the dugout and Ross Barkley this past week becoming the latest of five promising recruits signed during this transfer window, Villa look to be building well.

That does not mean that a club that escaped relegation on the final day of last season will beat the champions today, but they can at least be expected to show enough improvement to swell hopes for the rest of the campaign. "Liverpool will be a great marker to see how far we have moved on," says Smith.

You could be forgiven for thinking some people are getting carried away with talk of Villa's improvement and the idea that getting Barkley is a spectacular coup. Wasn't the last player whom Villa brought in on loan from Chelsea, Danny Drinkwater, one of the flops of last season? He sure was.

But misguided signings made in the throes of an injury crisis in January should not mask what has been happening at Villa since the club's billionaire owners hired Smith two years ago, when the club were in the bottom half of the Championship.

Villa have got better each season and now, thanks to new arrivals on top of a clutch of players who have been gradually getting better, they have a first XI, at least, that should be able to gain more than the nine Premier League wins Villa managed last season. Smith's coaching is key.

Last season, Smith, a former centre-back as a player but attack‑minded as a manager at Walsall and Brentford, used the lockdown to mastermind a dramatic defensive improvement, turning the league's most porous defence into one of its most solid. They have continued that this season, keeping clean sheets in their opening two matches, albeit against a Sheffield United side who were reduced to 10 men after 12 minutes and a Fulham team who look out of their depth.

Villa's improvement has been little to do with formation, more down to individuals performing better so that the collective grows stronger. That is a sure sign of good coaching. Under Smith, Tyrone Mings has become an England centre-half. His Villa partner, 22-year-old Ezri Konsa, is developing so much that Smith thinks he could be next on to the international stage. "Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings are a future England pairing, it's certainly a blossoming relationship," Smith says.

Konsa was one of the club's less‑trumpeted signings last season, when Villa paid £12m to bring him from Smith's previous club, Brentford. He plays with a discreet efficiency that can go unnoticed.

"That's what you want from a centre-back," says Smith. "Look at the best centre-back this club has ever had, Paul McGrath. He was just very, very good and very effective. The less you see of players like that in a game, the better they're doing.

"I've just seen continual improvement from (Konsa). Nothing fazes him."

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Barkley and £19m recruit from Lyon, Bertrand Traore, have been inconsistent at previous clubs but now have opportunity to fulfil their potential, just as Jack Grealish is doing at Villa. Barkley and Traore have the skill to run with the ball, leaving opponents in their wake while drawing in others - teams would then have to think twice about doubling up on Grealish. Liverpool needed a goal in stoppage time to win at Villa Park last season. They are unlikely to find it any easier this evening.

  • Aston Villa v Liverpool, Sky Sports, 7.15

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