Dean Smith turned to the television camera and broke into the broadest of smiles.
It was an hour before kick-off between Leicester and Aston Villa and a time when managers would usually be feeling tense before their pre-game interview, but Smith looked as though he had just sunk a long birdie putt on the 18th in his regular Sunday morning medal at Great Barr golf club.
How different the Villa manager’s manner had been at the same venue just seven months ago.
Dean Smith (second right) was a happy man as Aston Villa beat Leicester City 1-0 on Sunday
Ross Barkley (left)’s injury-time winner made it four wins from four at the start of this season
Beaten 4-0 at the King Power Stadium on March 9, Smith looked broken, muttering angrily about a VAR call as his team seemed destined for relegation.
For a man who usually stays remarkably calm, it was striking to see him so rattled and who knows what his fate might have been had his team been beaten heavily by Chelsea at Villa Park five days later?
The coronavirus shutdown meant the fixture did not take place until June 21 and although Villa lost 2-1, they had become a leaner, meaner team and avoided the drop by a single point.
Sportsmail looks at how Smith (above) has turned Villa round from relegation candidates…
An impressive transfer window added style to substance, and if Smith’s men avoid defeat at home to Leeds on Friday, they will be top of the Premier League.
Here, Sportsmail looks at how Villa have turned things round.
TIGHTENING UP THE DEFENCE
Watching Aston Villa before lockdown, you always felt they would need to score at least three times to win a game as they let in 56 goals in their first 28 matches.
During the pause, Smith chose to prioritise making his team harder to beat. When they were unable to train, he split the squad into small groups and asked them to analyse Villa’s defending in certain matches over Zoom, requesting feedback on what could be improved.
When training resumed, Smith took forensic charge of defensive shape. The former Brentford boss reverted to his preferred 4-3-3 system, with another ex-Bee, Ezri Konsa, a revelation in central defence.
Villa are now more tricky to get past with Ezri Konsa (right) and Tyrone Mings (left) at the back
Since the restart last season, they have conceded 15 goals in 13 games. Konsa and Tyrone Mings have rarely looked troubled this season. Indeed, Smith believes they could be a future England partnership.
Thanks to individual tactical and fitness work, Douglas Luiz now looks one of the best holding midfielders in the top flight.
The Brazilian and hard-running winger Trezeguet are two of a number of Villa players who look far fitter since lockdown.
GETTING PLAYER RECRUITMENT RIGHT
After promotion in 2019, Villa spent more than £140 million across two transfer windows.
Five of those 14 permanent signings — Konsa, Mings, Matt Targett, Luiz and Trezeguet — are now first-team regulars but Konsa, Trezeguet and Luiz needed the best part of a season to settle.
The recruitment department has been revamped, with their sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch — sacked at the end of last season — replaced by Johan Lange.
The arrival of sporting director Johan Lange (above) has been a revelation for Aston Villa
Villa now new faces Barkley (left), Matty Cash (third right) and Ollie Watkins (second right)
At FC Copenhagen, data specialist Lange was an expert at buying low and selling high and his influence will be felt in time, while Smith’s voice is now more powerful.
The manager pushed hard for Ollie Watkins, who he also knew from Brentford, even as the price climbed to a possible £33m. Billionaire owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens backed his judgement.
Smith wanted players who understood the British game and Watkins, Matty Cash, Emiliano Martinez and on-loan Ross Barkley all fit the bill.
KEEPING STAR MAN GREALISH ONSIDE
The importance of Smith’s relationship with his captain simply cannot be overstated.
When Grealish has had his problems off the field, his club boss always kept in contact with both the player and his family. It might seem an easy gesture, but it is one few managers make.
‘I could speak to him about anything, on or off the field,’ said Grealish during lockdown. ‘I have played the best football of my career since he was appointed.’
Keeping club captain Jack Grealish (above) has been vital for Villa’s performances this season
Before the start of the season, Grealish signed a new five-year deal, taking his wages well above £100,000 a week.
No club ever came close to matching Villa’s £80 m valuation of the 25-year-old yet the fact that Grealish stayed without fuss — and has set the league alight this term — speaks to Smith’s influence.
Keeping senior players like Grealish, Mings and John McGinn on board will be key this season.
ADDING SHAKESPEARE’S KNOW-HOW
How do you deal with leading the Premier League? Or losing five games in a row?
What if your highest-paid player downs tools in training or you’re preparing to face a top-rank attack with three of your back four out injured?
The Premier League presents unique challenges. Last season, Smith had no top-flight experience in his coaching team and decided that he needed some.
Bringing Craig Shakespeare (middle) in as an assistant manager has also been key for Smith
Shakespeare (above) was an assistant at Leicester City when they won the top-flight in 2016
As Claudio Ranieri’s No 2, Craig Shakespeare was important in Leicester’s 2015-16 title victory and did much to implement the Foxes’ superb defensive organisation.
He had a brief spell managing Leicester and has also worked alongside Nigel Pearson and Sam Allardyce at the top level.
Though Smith has retained assistants John Terry and Richard O’Kelly and goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler, the arrival of Shakespeare gives the coaching team vital know-how.