Aston Villa seem to flow better on the pitch with a holding midfielder – namely Birkir Bjarnason or Glenn Whelan.
Words by Harry Trend (@HazaTrand)
Let’s be honest, Villa’s contribution from midfield on Saturday against Sheffield Wednesday wasn’t great. The Pride lacked cohesion and fluidity and didn’t deserve anything from the game. Moving forward, do Villa need a holding midfielder in the starting XI, or can a more attack minded midfield two, or even three, flourish?
The 2-0 win over Rotherham United was the first time in recent memory that Bruce tried a 4-4-2.
Last season, Hourihane was deployed as the more deep lying midfielder along with either Mile Jedinak, Birkir Bjarnason or Glenn Whelan. The Irishman is not a traditional holding midfielder in the mould of Jedinak or Whelan, and rarely does Bruce name a starting XI without one of these.
Initially, Hourihane was dropped in favour of new signing McGinn, but made the most of his substitute appearances to force his way back into the team. Many people forget how good the Irishman was defensively last campaign, his boundless energy allowed him to get back and make tackles, plus the eleven goals was a nice bonus.
Playing alongside Hourihane most recently in the midfield two has been John McGinn. McGinn is the archetypal box to box midfielder whose driving runs from midfield can change defence into attack.
Yet Hourihane and McGinn both struggled to get a hold of the midfield against Sheffield Wednesday. McGinn played well as per, but there was no fluidity. A high percentage of attacks ended up as mindless crosses from the wing which were headed away, something that has been happening all season.
Going forward, the addition of the previously mentioned traditional holding midfielder isn’t the solution to Villa’s midfield problem. Yes, we could’ve had more covered the back four better on Saturday, but if Bruce wants to persist with a 4-4-2, it’ll be on the training ground where the gaffer can iron out these creases. McGinn, as well as Hourihane are more than capable defensively.
Passes reaching their targets is a crucial part to controlling the middle third. With Jedinak in midfield you just don’t get that. This season, 75% of the Aussie’s passes have found their intended man. In the play-off semi final slogs against Middlesbrough last season, Jedinak was the perfect man for the job, but against Blackburn it was so clear how much we improved when Hourihane came on. The Irishman dictated the play and was even pointing out passes for other players to make.
The other traditional holding midfielder is Whelan. The former Stoke midfielder keeps things ticking over with a high 89% passes completed this term and the man can produce a killer ball as shown for his assist for Anwar El Ghazi in our defeat to Sheffield United. Unfortunately, the 34-year-old’s attacking contribution is nowhere near that of Hourihane, Grealish or even Bjarnason. Whelan doesn’t get enough credit for his involvement, but at the same time the Irishman wouldn’t get into our best XI.
Ultimately, Bruce has the tools at his disposal to start a winning XI without a holding midfielder, but it will take time to perfect this. Time which Bruce may not have.