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Late-night debriefs, Zoom and barbecues.. how Dean Smith led Aston Villa to the brink of safety 

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late night debriefs zoom and barbecues how dean smith led aston villa to the brink of safety

The Aston Villa players did not envisage, of course, that midsummer would entail 1am match debriefs and team barbecues at a Birmingham hotel, or hours in the video room analysing how Lazio and Liverpool defend.

Nor that those hours in each other’s company would put them in control of their own Premier League destiny on Sunday.

The table did not look pretty for them before football restarted. Second bottom, with the most porous defence and no firepower to speak of.

Dean Smith has turned Aston Villa's season around and they are now on the brink of survival

Dean Smith has turned Aston Villa's season around and they are now on the brink of survival

Dean Smith has turned Aston Villa’s season around and they are now on the brink of survival

But a win by two goals at West Ham on Saturday will probably be enough to keep them up and a draw would do the same, should Watford fail to win at Arsenal. This new landscape has not materialised entirely by chance.

The managers who have enjoyed most success these past few months have generally been those who used the enforced break to make changes to their team’s structure and methods.

Dean Smith’s work at Villa was arguably the most substantial of all. Smith, like Graham Potter at Brighton, felt that pre-season had not given him enough time to fully prepare for this season.

Villa’s ageing Championship squad was rebuilt, with 11 players leaving and 12 coming in after promotion last summer — some arriving only two days before the new season.

Villa's Premier League future is in their own hands as they enter the final day of the season

Villa's Premier League future is in their own hands as they enter the final day of the season

Villa’s Premier League future is in their own hands as they enter the final day of the season

The £120million spend was no trolley dash. The average fee was around £9m. Some felt that the club, who finished fifth in the Championship, were promoted too early.

The 100 days between their 4-0 defeat by Leicester City in March and the restart at home to Sheffield United was a chance to make up lost time.

Smith sat down with each of his squad to undertake individual performance reviews. He set up small groups of players to review videos of Villa games together and report back on what they felt could have been different.

‘They presented back to us what they thought was good and what wasn’t,’ said Smith on Friday. ‘When we came back, we had an agreed plan of what we wanted to do. When it’s an agreed plan, I can go and nail someone and say, “Hang on, you agreed to this”.

‘That’s certainly what we did! We’ve done a lot of video coaching that I never thought I would have to do, by Zoom calls.’

Smith had his men spend hours in the video room analysing how teams like Lazio defend

Smith had his men spend hours in the video room analysing how teams like Lazio defend

Smith had his men spend hours in the video room analysing how teams like Lazio defend

31167060 8558363 image a 53 1595630117049

31167060 8558363 image a 53 1595630117049

Without a great strikeforce, he concluded that making Villa more robust and effective on the break was vital, sending the squad videos of teams whose defensive work he considers exemplary. He, rather than assistant John Terry, drove this defensive focus.

Opta data shows they have faced on average eight fewer shots per game since the restart and improved their clean sheet ratio by nearly 20 per cent.

The 100-day hiatus also created time to work with Douglas Luiz on how to perform the defensive midfield role he was brought in to play last summer at a cost of £15m from Manchester City.

A Portuguese translator has been drafted in to help the Brazilian with his English skills but the break has also allowed time for the 22-year-old’s football instruction. His contribution since the restart has been a huge part of Villa’s recovery.

So has Smith’s decision to keep the players together more than any other Premier League squad and generate a tournament mentality.

Each match — home or away — has entailed two nights at a team hotel, with barbecues and debriefs into the early hours.

Smith has kept the players together as much as possible to generate a tournament mentality

Smith has kept the players together as much as possible to generate a tournament mentality

Smith has kept the players together as much as possible to generate a tournament mentality

‘To be together was the best way of doing it,’ said Smith. ‘It’s felt like we’ve been in a tournament. The players and staff have not seen much of their families but we felt it would help us.

‘We would do debriefs at 1am after an evening game and then quickly move on to the next one.’

It helps that he displays such remarkable mental equilibrium because there have been some dark moments. The criticism was at its fiercest when Villa lost at home to Chelsea three weeks ago, without any attacking threat.

The 3-0 home defeat by Manchester United looked like the beginning of the end. But those who have worked with Smith this season describe an equanimity amid football’s highs and lows.

The contrast with Watford —whose football has been terrible since the restart — is unmissable. Watford’s decision to dismiss manager Nigel Pearson just before Villa’s win at home to Arsenal seems an extraordinarily bad one, although a view of Pearson up close suggests that he is a difficult individual.

The overhead kick by Danny Welbeck which secured three home points against Norwich last month gave Pearson a chance to celebrate and motivate the player publicly. Yet when asked if the goal proved that Welbeck was of world-class quality, he chose to pick holes in the question.

‘You seem to have decided what to write,’ he replied.

Ben Foster admitted that the team’s confidence was ‘crazy low’ after the 4-0 midweek defeat at home to Manchester City tipped Watford into the relegation zone.

Smith described earlier this season Villa’s habit of ‘catastrophising’ when they fall behind and it is at moments like this that a 33-year career in football helps.

Villa’s future remains on a knife-edge with the club setting out plans for both scenarios

Villa’s future remains on a knife-edge with the club setting out plans for both scenarios

Villa’s future remains on a knife-edge with the club setting out plans for both scenarios

The 49-year-old recalled on Friday the last day of the 2005-06 season as assistant boss of Orient, who needed a win for promotion.

They got it, relegating Oxford to the Conference in the process. Four years later his Walsall side lost to Southampton but avoided relegation from League One because of results elsewhere.

Villa’s future remains on a knife-edge. The club have already set out plans for a Premier League and Championship future.

Smith will sleep soundly on Saturday night, which is more than can be said for his wife. ‘She seems to be the one who bears the brunt of the pressure and stress levels and I don’t think she’s watched any of the last six games!’ he said. ‘Our daughter has to tell her with an alert on the phone.’

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Copenhagen star Zeca thanks Man United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for his work with the club

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copenhagen star zeca thanks man united boss ole gunnar solskjaer for his work with the club

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks to have gained an unlikely fan after guiding the club to the Europa League semi-finals. 

The Red Devils sneaked a 1-0 win over Copenhagen and after the full-time whistle in Cologne, Solskjaer was greeted by the Danish side’s skipper Zeca – who was keen to thank him for the work he had done at Old Trafford.

United clinched the quarter-final victory in extra time thanks to Bruno Fernandes‘ penalty, and despite Copenhagen being dumped out of the competition after a plucky display, their captain was quick to hold a bizarre conversation with the Norwegian.

Man United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was greeted by Copenhagen Zeca after their 1-0 win

Man United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was greeted by Copenhagen Zeca after their 1-0 win

Man United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was greeted by Copenhagen Zeca after their 1-0 win 

He thanked him for his work at Old Trafford while Solskjaer said match-winner Bruno Fernandes (R) was 'helping' in the club's revival

He thanked him for his work at Old Trafford while Solskjaer said match-winner Bruno Fernandes (R) was 'helping' in the club's revival

He thanked him for his work at Old Trafford while Solskjaer said match-winner Bruno Fernandes (R) was ‘helping’ in the club’s revival

Zeca shakes hands with Solskjaer and pats him on the back while saying: ‘Thank you very much for everything you have done in Manchester.’

Solskjaer walks with the 31-year-old towards the touchline and replies: ‘We’re trying to get it back.’ He then points to match-winner Fernandes alongside him and says: ‘He is [Fernandes] helping, this boy is helping.’

Still in a complimentary mood, Zeca responded: ‘Yeah, this guy is amazing. He’s amazing.’

Fernandes scored the only goal of the game to steer the Red Devils to the Europa League semis

Fernandes scored the only goal of the game to steer the Red Devils to the Europa League semis

Fernandes scored the only goal of the game to steer the Red Devils to the Europa League semis

Greek international Zeca, clearly a United enthusiast, has been with Copenhagen since 2017 and previously made 249 appearances for Panathinaikos in a six-year spell.   

United fans will certainly be pleased with the job Solskjaer has done, with the team finishing third in the Premier League to secure Champions League football next season despite making their worst start to a season in 30 years.

The former Cardiff boss found himself under severe pressure after a string of poor results early on in the 19-20 campaign but inspired his players to a remarkable comeback.

Solskjaer has a chance to lift his first trophy with United after reaching the last four in Germany

Solskjaer has a chance to lift his first trophy with United after reaching the last four in Germany

Solskjaer has a chance to lift his first trophy with United after reaching the last four in Germany

He was able to get big performances out of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood and also guided his side to the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

And after seeing off Copenhagen at the World-Cup style Europa League finals in Germany, United now face a semi-final against either Sevilla or fellow Premier League outfit Wolves. 

Should they make their way past the winner of that tie, Solskjaer will have a chance to lift his first trophy with the club at the grand final on August 21. 

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Arsenal ‘told to pay close to £27m to land Porto midfielder Danilo Pereira’

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arsenal told to pay close to 27m to land porto midfielder danilo pereira

Arsenal are lining up a move for Porto midfielder Danilo Pereira as Mikel Arteta looks to strengthen the Gunners’ midfield options. 

The 28-year-old has been an integral part of a title-winning Porto team this season and has made 40 appearances across all competitions for the club.

And Portuguese news outlet O Jogo have reported that the 28-year-old will be available this summer and have set an asking price of close to £27m.

Danilo Pereira has been linked with a move away from Porto join Mikel Arteta's Arsenal side

Danilo Pereira has been linked with a move away from Porto join Mikel Arteta's Arsenal side

Danilo Pereira has been linked with a move away from Porto join Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal side

The 28-year-old has been an integral part for Porto and played 40 times in all competitions

The 28-year-old has been an integral part for Porto and played 40 times in all competitions

The 28-year-old has been an integral part for Porto and played 40 times in all competitions

The club rejected a bid of £27m for the player last summer but now feel that figure is a fair price.

However it is believed Arsenal are not willing to pay as much for the player as the Portuguese champions would like.

Mikel Arteta’s side is only willing to spend £18m on the player, and it is said a bid of this price would be instantly rejected by Porto.

This could mean Arsenal will need to increase their offer for Pereira who could add some steel to the Gunners’ midfield.

The Gunners have a restricted transfer budget this summer on the back of the covid-19 pandemic. 

Arsenal are hoping to clear funds by offloading Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Ozil this summer which could prove to be a tough ask in terms of the latter.

Mikel Arteta is hoping to strengthen Arsenal's options in midfield in the summer window

Mikel Arteta is hoping to strengthen Arsenal's options in midfield in the summer window

Mikel Arteta is hoping to strengthen Arsenal’s options in midfield in the summer window

Pereira though is a no-nonsense type midfielder who could be seen as a cheaper alternative to Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey who the Gunners have also been linked with in recent months.

The midfielder has spoken out in the past about a potential move to the North London Club.

He told Stats Perform News as per The Sun: ‘I think he (Arteta) is doing a really, really, good job there. He is a really good coach who started as the second coach at [Manchester] City, so he has a little experience and Arsenal play very good football and I think he is doing very well there.

Pereira is valued at £27m  though Arsenal reportedly only wish to pay £18m for the midfielder

Pereira is valued at £27m  though Arsenal reportedly only wish to pay £18m for the midfielder

Pereira is valued at £27m  though Arsenal reportedly only wish to pay £18m for the midfielder

‘He is a Spanish coach, he is a bit similar to Portuguese coaches, they also want to play with the ball and improve with the ball, so I think he is a good coach.

 ‘The style I think I can fit there, the way he plays also thinking on the ball, the team always has to be together – I think it is a good way to play.’

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Ibrahimovic, 38, expected to sign new £104k-a-week AC Milan contract this week after returning from Saint-Tropez holiday

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ibrahimovic 38 expected to sign new 104k a week ac milan contract this week after returning from saint tropez holiday scaled

AC MILAN are set to hand Zlatan Ibrahimovic a new one-year deal with the club delighted by his performances following his arrival in the winter transfer window.

The 38-year-old chipped in with 11 goals and five assists in 20 games in all competitions as he helped the Rossoneri secure a Europa League spot.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is reportedly set to sign a new one-year deal at the San Siro

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is reportedly set to sign a new one-year deal at the San SiroCredit: Reuters

SunSport reported last month how the Serie A side were ready to hand the Swedish striker a £104,000-a-week contract at the San Siro.

And now it has been claimed that he will put pen to paper on a new deal this week once he returns from his break in Saint-Tropez.

According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Ibrahimovic will sign a contract at the club that will last until the end of the 2020/21 campaign.

It has been claimed that Ibrahimovic’s signature is all that is needed for the announcement to become official.

After weeks of negotiations, it is believed that news of his stay will be confirmed later this week.

Gazzetta dello Sport reported in July that Ibrahimovic could sign a one-year deal, with the option of a further 12 months.

This would mean that the ex-Manchester United star would be 40 by the time his second spell ends in Milan.

There were rumours that Leeds were eyeing up a move for the maverick forward after the former Barcelona man stated he is unsure whether he will remain in Italy.

But Ibrahimovic put an end to speculation regarding his future after he appeared in Milan’s kit launch for next term.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic keeps himself fit with yacht workout on Sun soaked holiday

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