By Kris Woodward
Hero to Zero?
This season, Aston Villa supporters have seen their initial love affair with Connor Hourihane being tested. The midfielder was arguably one of Villa’s most influential players last season with 11 goals and two assists, scoring a notable hat-trick against Norwich and a superb goal against the Blues. However, the arrival of John McGinn and Jack Grealish staying at the club has seen Hourihane’s position change this season.
At the start of the season, Hourihane’s role under Bruce was very much seen as an impact substitute, as he struggled to break into the first XI.
Dean Smith had also initially preferred John McGinn and Jack Grealish as his preferred choice of attacking midfielders this season, which had pushed Hourihane further back, being tasked with playing a deeper holding role.
Rather than having a straight-up defensive midfielder like Glen Whelan or Mile Jedinak, Smith had hoped that Hourihane could be of a progressive pivot for his possession based football, playing something of a quarterback role.
Statistics wise Hourihane’s return doesn’t look too bad with four goals and nine assists. Especially when you compare this to McGinn, who has been a bit of a fan favourite this year, return of two goals and seven assists. Furthermore, Grealish’s contribution so far this season in 21 starts, stands at two goals and four assists (obviously taking note Grealish has suffered a long-term injury). These stats do show that Hourihane is still influential in our attacking play.
Defensively though, Hourihane has struggled, you could argue he hasn’t taken to the defensive role all that well.
Many of the goals Aston Villa have conceded this season has been from teams being given the freedom to run at, and seemingly cut through, our defence. Thinking back to the likes of Joe Lolley’s (Villa 5-5 Forrest), Luke Freeman’s (Villa 2-2 QPR) and Jay Rodriguez’s (Villa 0-2 WBA) goals, whist they were superb strikes, they were given to much time in the middle of the park to take these shots.
Hourihane’s game off the ball has been questionable at times, as he’s struggled to read the game. Often being drawn to the ball, allowing opposition midfielders to ghost in behind him.
Watching John McGinn this season, most have been impressed by his bull-dog like approach to games. His never ending stamina and pointed elbows see him constantly fighting to win the ball and move play forward.
McGinn seems to have been tasked with winning possession further up the field but with our defensive issues and lack of ability to keep a clean sheet would it be worth asking McGinn to play the defensive role in midfield?
McGinn’s energy and closing down of opponents would limit the opposition being given time and space in the Villa half. Looking at the stats between Hourihane and McGinn would also suggest a switch in position. McGinn’s average of 2.2 tackles per game and 0.9 interceptions are more impressive than Hourihane’s average of 1 tackle and 1 interception per game.
If you were to couple this with their attacking statistics, Hourihane and McGinn switching duties in the middle of the park might not be the worst suggestion.
In an ideal world we would have brought in a ready-made defensive midfielder in January, instead of Tom Carroll, who has barely played this year.
However, as Villa fans, as we’ve long realised, there is no such thing as a perfect world.
While it’s not a long term fix, McGinn’s 10 yellow cards and 79% average passing accuracy proves that, but in the final months of the season and with the play-offs a fading dream, switching Hourihane might offer something different.
After all, even this season, he’s proven he has end product, possessing the joint fourth highest amount of assists (nine) for a Championship player.
It would give Hourihane a chance to impress once again – whether it be to have a role in Smith’s midfield next season, or at the very least, in the shop window ahead of the summer.