By Sam Vanolinda
Graphic by Jesse Diebolt / TopBin90
It was announced today that Dean Smith will take over the reins from Christian Lattanzio as manager of Charlotte FC for the 2024 season.
The 52-year-old West Bromich native has a wealth of experience in the top league in the world; he takes over after last managing Leicester City at the tail end of the 2022-2023 season.
Although it's hard to live up to the name Dean Smith in the Tarheel state, Smith will try to use his experience to take Charlotte FC to the next level in their third year of existence.
Many fans will want to know what style of manager Smith is and what style of play Smith may implement in the Queen City– in this article, I will summarize what to expect from the team's new skipper.
First, let's look at Smith’s extensive coaching history. Smith started as a youth coach at Leyton Orient before he was promoted to assistant manager in 2005. In 2009, he left Leyton Orient and began as a youth coach at the club where he started his playing career, Walsall.
Smith was promoted to caretaker manager of Walsall in 2011 and permanent manager shortly after. He took Walsall quickly from the bottom of the table to safety. He remained with the club until 2015, when he signed with Championship side Brentford.
At Brentford, Smith hovered around the middle of the table while trying to push toward playoffs to get Brentford into the Premier League. Smith played an entertaining style of football on a low budget for The Bees but could not break through into the the top four.
Smith then signed for 15th-place Aston Villa in 2018; during his time there, he managed to secure promotion back into the Premier League for the Villans. Jack Grealish was one of the names that came to fruition during his time there.
Villa was promoted heading into the 2019 season, in which the team spent £144.5 million in the summer window, bringing in 12 players, including many that have contributed to the team being in third place today.
Smith led Villa to an FA Cup final during his first EPL year with Villa, a 1-2 loss to Man City. In the league, he barely escaped relegation with a 1-1 draw vs West Ham on the final day securing the team another year at the top.
During his last couple of years at Villa, he brought in more mainstays who are excelling for the team today, Ollie Watkins, Emiliano Martinez, and Leon Bailey, to name a few. Unfortunately, after a poor run of form in 2021, Smith was relieved of his duties and joined Norwich City.
Smith’s time at Norwich was not the most successful, but the finances and quality of players at the club were not up to Premier League standard. The team finished dead last and was relegated in 2021, and in the 2022 Championship season, he was sacked.
His final job before Charlotte was managing relegation-bound Leicester after Brenden Rodgers was sacked at the end of the 2022-2023 season. Since then, he has been looking for a new opportunity, one that he has found here for The Crown.
Type of Manager/ Style of Play
The Championship in England is a similar level to the play of the MLS. Judging by Smith’s success with Aston Villa in that league, leading them to promotion, Smith should be comfortable adapting to American soccer.
I will be quoting a few articles when it comes to analyzing Dean Smith’s style of play: “Dean Smith at Aston Villa,” on totalfootballanalysis.com by Amir Mir, and Dean Smith: Coach Watch, on coachesvoice.com, by the Coaches Voice team.
When Smith joined Aston Villa, he created a goalscoring explosion; he implemented a 4-3-3 formation with his wingers pushing higher up the field. The team scored 21 goals and picked up 17 points in Smith’s first nine games for the club.
Smith allowed his midfielders in his 4-3-3 to be more expressive and free-roaming, allowing them to push up further rather than being compact and defensive.
When Smith took over Villa, he pushed the entire team into a possession-based attacking style of football, with his center backs on the halfway line in possession and full-backs pushed high up the field to overload the defense.
He also woke up Jack Grealish when he took over. Smith would overload the middle and one side of the pitch when attacking, opening up space for more than just the strikers and contributing to goals from all over.
Smith’s attacking style of play at Aston Villa made for a higher pressing line from his midfielders, leading to a much higher amount of dispossessions in the opponent's half.
When summarizing Smith's impact on the team, Mir said this: “Attacking. Ruthless. Risk taking. Adventurous. Villa have been all those things under Smith, hence the reason why they are finding the back of the net more often than they did under their previous manager. Even when Villa are leading 2-0 away from home against a promotion rival, Smith is not satisfied. And it is that mentality that is giving opposition teams nightmares. And Villa hopes that a top-two finish is still a real possibility.”
The only concern this style of play brings up is its similarity to Lattanzio’s mentality last season. Even when the team was up, he would continue to attack and press, and sometimes that cost the team. I think Smith’s experience will cause him to switch up his style of play slightly at Charlotte because the team does not have the quality of players like Jack Grealish here in the Queen City; his vast managing experience will allow Smith to calm the team down and sit back more when they are trying to protect a lead.
On top of that, the players that Smith may bring in will most likely have English League experience just like him and should provide stability when trying to close out games.
Coaches Voice had a more overall summary of Smith’s managerial style and tactics throughout his career:
Smith used a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 in his early days at Brentford. In these attacking formations, they were the fourth-highest scorers in the Championship in 2016/17. He would implement a single or double pivot and have the full-backs provide width in build-up, but rarely overlap.
A signature within Smith’s tactics is having the attacking midfielders make wide overlapping runs past the striker. This was very successful with talented forward Ollie Watkins. This would require a striker at Charlotte with good hold-up play and distribution, à la Harry Kane.
At Villa, Smith was more focused on crosses from wide positions. When he was promoted to the Premier League, the team attempted the fifth most crosses in the league from high-pressing full-backs like Ahmed Elmohamady and Matt Targett.
As Villa became accustomed to the Premier League, their play started to focus on their star man, Jack Grealish, who would start wide as seen in this picture. However, very often he would drift into the inside to create opportunities for the forwards and midfielders to make runs.
Grealish was truly dominant in his Villa years, and Smith had to adjust when he left. The team became more game managers and implemented a direct style of play in attack. It shows that Smith can adjust depending on personnel.
If Smith signs a player of incredible quality to come to Charlotte FC this winter, he will be able to create tactics that get the most out of that player, but he also can play more situational football.
If you want an even deeper analysis of Smith’s tactics over the years, read the Coaches Voice article.
In summary, it's hard to know what style Smith will use in the MLS. He could take from his Brentford days with a high press or a more wing-play crossing system like his Premier League days at Villa. I think the signings that Smith makes will give us clues on what type of football he wants to play.
I took my time to watch a couple of Dean Smith interviews to see what kind of person he is. Playing over 700 games as a center back, you have to remain calm and composed to stay on the field, and that seems like the type of Coach Smith is.
It seems like he will not let emotions get the best of him, but he still has that passion and determination to influence his team towards winning football. I think he is the type of person Charlotte FC needs to send them in the right direction.
When Smith was interviewed on his first day at Villa, this was his response to a question about expectations from him as a manager:
“Working hard is a given, what they’ll get from me is respect, honesty, I want them to work and train at an intensity. I’m a believer that what you do on the training pitch you take into a match day.”
Time will tell how Smith impacts this football club, and fans will be able to learn more about him in the coming days when he completes his initial press and interviews, all I can say is I am impressed with his resume, style of play, and attitude when it comes to coaching.