Conor Hourihane has been an integral part of the Aston Villa squad for the last two seasons, and deserves plaudits rather than pessimism for what we brings to the squad.
Words by Mark Jirobe (@VillaMarkPGH)
The run of form of Aston Villa has not been up to snuff and especially not for the supporters of the historic football club. Fresh off of Villa’s first home win since the end of November, the team seems very disjointed in most areas on the pitch. Players that you would once see make an impact almost every game look like nothing more than underachievers as of late. However, there are still a good number of players at Aston Villa that deserve to stay through the overhaul that manager Dean Smith has all but promised is happening this coming summer.
Needless to say, if your name isn’t Tammy Abraham or John McGinn, you probably aren’t very popular to most Aston Villa supporters at the present time.
Aston Villa star man Jack Grealish being injured for over a month happened at a very inopportune time. No one will tell you that more than Dean Smith. Yet, through careful tactical evaluation mixed with a bit of player-to-player chemistry, there has been a player other than Abraham and McGinn who should be getting deserved respect and admiration for his contributions.
Conor Hourihane has played 28 times for Villa this season and is boasting an impressive 7.21 average rating in a very underwhelming squad based on current form. The Irishman’s four goals and eight assists are almost an afterthought considering all praises seem to go to Tammy Abraham and his wonderfully astounding 19 goals. There have been supporters of Aston Villa who have been very negative when it comes to Hourihane and his play on the pitch without talisman Jack Grealish creating space in the final third.
The midfield pairing of Hourihane, Grealish and McGinn seemed to be just about a concrete selection for Dean Smith before Grealish got injured. The turnstile of midfield combination and tactics have waxed and waned throughout the time that Grealish has been absent, too. Birkir Bjarnason was given a chance after returning from injury. Glenn Whelan showed he can be a very formidable midfield presence on his day, as well. But no pairing has screamed “The Dean Smith Way Of Football” like Hourihane, Grealish and McGinn together.
Has Hourihane had a few bad games this season? The correct answer would be a simple “Yes”. In the interest of fairness, every last player for Villa has had multiple bad or underwhelming games this season. Tammy Abraham had a better chance of finding a Nando’s in the locker room than the goalmouth in the 3-0 loss to Wigan. The Chelsea loanee didn’t exactly finish well in the latest 2-1 win against Ipswich Town, either – despite scoring twice.
John McGinn, who is usually also immune to criticism by Aston Villa supporters, has also had difficult games. McGinn played as poor as Villa fans have seen him in a 1-0 win against Swansea City on Boxing Day. The Scot only placed 22 accurate passes in the duration of the entire 90 minutes in that specific fixture, as well. Not exactly the kind of distribution you would like to see from a midfielder who is known for his endless work-rate and slick passing ability. While McGinn is a phenomenal player and one of the best signings that have come through the doors at Villa Park in some time, it is unfair to think that he is above being criticised.
Hourihane brings something to the Aston Villa midfield that is generally unnoticed and definitely underappreciated: Stability.
Let us not forget that former Villa manager Steve Bruce couldn’t find a way to fit Hourihane in his starting XI for a good number of games towards the beginning of this season. You don’t need a flying vegetable launched at you to understand how much of a bad decision Bruce made in this instance. Hourihane has not once, but multiple times this season, found ways to capture three points for Villa or bring them level practically on his own.
A 90th minute winner by Birkir Bjarnason in early August against Wigan was assisted by a beautiful far-post cross off of the foot of Hourihane. After being brought onto the pitch in the 77th minute against Blackburn Rovers in September, Hourihane would go on to rescue a draw after a stunning free-kick goal in a game where it looked as if nothing was going right for the Lions as a whole. Most recently, Hourihane has been doing a superb job finding the danger-man of all danger-men in Tammy Abraham. It is expected that Abraham will eclipse 20 goals this season for Villa, a feat which hasn’t been touched since the days of Aston Villa legend Peter Withe.
It can be argued that the true ‘box-to-box midfielder’ role is all but extinct in the modern game of football, but Hourihane does an above average job in all phases of play. His general pattern of play suggests that Dean Smith would like him to be a bit more responsible in the build-up towards the final third, before slotting the ball to widemen or directly into the feet of Abraham with a surgical dissection of the opposition defence.