Likening football to poker, Dean Smith can improve what he reads from other coaches’ decisions.

Follow the writer on Twitter: @RyanPitcher


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A poker player applies mathematics and theory to every decision they make on the felt. They are forced to adapt to different players and unique playing styles. Being able to flex mental muscle makes a key ingredient for a worthy competitor.

A game of poker isn’t too dissimilar from the situation that Aston Villa currently find themselves in.

In theory, Aston Villa could – and should – be in a better position than they currently are. From the costly individual errors against AFC Bournemouth to Friend-Gate at Crystal Palace, and more recently the games against West Ham United and Arsenal where the side have failed to make the most of a numerical advantage. Six games in, and there are points that have gone awry.

In poker terms, the first few mistakes can be excused; a new player to the live circuit suffering a few jitters is only natural. The incident against Crystal Palace can be likened to a dealer inadvertently mucking your hand in what would be a chopped pot. But not making the most of a significant edge – not only once, but twice – can be considered pretty poor. Especially when you have ‘the lead’ and you’re playing well by all accounts, à la Arsenal.

Eleven on ten is about as good of an edge as you are ever going to get on a football pitch. You’re practically holding the nuts and it’s now all about extracting the most value from your opponent, and if you’re consistently failing to do that on the felt – you’re going to be the losing player.

(Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

Dean Smith’s post-game comments at The Emirates Stadium made for interesting listening. He blamed the defeat on a trio of core factors – the players lost their fearlessness, dropped too deep and chose to forgo their structure.

Stamina and adaptation can be considered two core fundamentals to being a winning player in poker and the same can be said about a game of football. It was clear to most that at 65 minutes into the game and a scoreline of 2-1, Jack Grealish and John McGinn – especially the latter – were now struggling to keep up with the pace of the game as Arsenal looked for a rebuttal. This was alarming – why were they both blowing when Aston Villa had the man advantage?

The deepening drop of the defence was merely a by-product of the protection in front of them being ‘all at sea’, which is why Arsenal continued to press and probe through the middle of the pitch. To his credit, Unai Emery tried to tip off Dean Smith as best as he could by making the switch to introduce Torreira and Willock for the final 20 – but Villa still didn’t make the switch. This is Dean Smith needing to improve his live reads.

For those watching from the stands or at home, it was clear that fresher legs were needed in the middle of the park, but Smith naively resisted until five minutes before the 90.

Being sat at a table in a dark and dingy poker room, folding hand after hand for hours on end with no masseuse in sight can be gruelling on the mind and body. It’s imperative to stay focused on the task at hand and even if it’s not your best game, you can still draw positives from the way you play your hand – even if it’s a hand you lose. Sometimes if things aren’t going your way, then losing the minimum can be seen somewhat as a result.

Fans can take heart from the way Aston Villa have performed for many periods across the opening half a dozen matches, and the side has shown that they can be and will remain competitive.

The game of poker hosts math ‘problems’ as a series of complexities; working out how many outs remain, getting or not getting the correct pot odds to make a call and bet sizing. Dean Smith is an intelligent man, a chess player and an analytical mind – but perhaps needs to work on his poker going forward.

The next three games make the math pretty simple for Aston Villa. inroads need to be made in the ‘points’ section of the table. Against sides that come to the brink of summer next year, will likely be slugging it out with us.

We’re all-in.

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