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.
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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.
imo its already proven under both managers we are a one man team, will smith and villa let jack go come the end of the season. if they do that will show a lack of ambition to me.
Whilst I agree that Hourihane isn’t suited to the role he’s been asked to play, I wouldn’t want McGinn there either. He is the type of midfielder who needs to be given a box to box role. What this shows is just how difficult it is to find players like Busquets, Kante, Fernandinho, Matic etc. who have the mindset, knowledge and technical ability to read the game and distribute the ball across the whole pitch. People look at them and think “why can’t so and so do that for us?” – well the reason is that it is actually a very challenging role, with both ends of the team putting you in the spotlight and making big demands of you. If you are caught out once or give the ball away cheaply a couple of times you can destabilise the whole game plan, even cost your team the match. It’s no coincidence that Man City don’t do as well and lose matches when Fernandinho is out injured. The Villa need to play a different style of football until they can find a player capable of filling that role effectively.
Our possession stats would suggest that most championship teams struggle to get the ball off us when we have it. What we then don’t do is to move the ball quickly enough and make enough runs in behind, breaking the lines. It’s a chicken and egg situation because forwards stop making the runs when the pass is either poor or never comes, and midfielders don’t look to pass quickly when they aren’t convinced the runner will be there.
These are problems that don’t get fixed without plenty of hard work on the training ground and togetherness in terms of understanding the plan and executing it, even when sometimes it doesn’t seem to be working at first. I think that Smith and his staff who are all top pros with fantastic personal CVs know what they want to achieve and have a roadmap of how to get there, but we can’t expect it to happen instantly. That’s hard to accept sometimes but it’s just a fact.
Players will move on, Smith will bring new ones in, and so far he is getting plenty out of those who’ve arrived, and some who were there already. I think it’s all going in the right direction. Just give him time.
You say in Smith’s midfield next season but if we continue to play as we are doing I think there’s a doubt whether it will be Smith next season
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