As the run-in to Aston Villa’s crucial Play-Off Final looms, fans are split on which of the clubs Irish contingent should start at Wembley – Whelan, or Hourihane?
Words by Alan Wilson | @VILLAlan54
As Aston Villa approach arguably one of the most crucial matches in their history, Dean Smith faces a real team selection dilemma.
With two midfielders seemingly sharing their time on the pitch, Smith has to make a decision that could be vital to the result.
Glenn Whelan’s form this season has been eye catching to say the least. In Aston Villa’s recent record-breaking run, his assured performances have had the fans echoing his name around the stadium almost every time he has touched the ball.
His passing success rate is an impressive 86% – and the veteran Ireland international has started in half of Aston Villa’s matches this season, at twenty-three, with an added twelve appearances coming from the bench.
Playing mainly in an anchor role, he’s even managed to score once as well!
Perhaps the strongest argument for Whelan is his uncanny ability to break up opponent play in the middle of the park, by intercepting passes and then quickly lining up with his wingers to create stunning counter attacks.
At one time he was criticised heavily by fans for being “too old” and “too slow”, however there is no doubt that his calm, assured play on the ball has been a key component in Villa’s dazzling run to the Play-Off Final – and this has made him a firm favourite with the Villa faithful.
There’s an equally strong argument for Aston Villa’s other Irish maestro, Conor Hourihane.
His younger legs have seen him as a starter in thirty-four matches, with eleven more appearances as a substitute. A more attacking player than Whelan, he has terrorised opponents with his brilliant left foot – scoring eight goals – including the vital equaliser against West Bromwich Albion in the first leg of the Play-Off Semi-Final at Villa Park.
Hourihane’s pass success rate is equally as impressive at Whelan’s, weighing in at 87% – and he has achieved a highly impressive 11 assists – making him the sixth best in the Sky Bet Championship this season. Whelan has three assists to his name.
Hourihane also has an impressive overall rating of 7.02 from his performances in this campaign.
In regards to their discipline, Hourihane has collected six yellow cards compared to Glenn Whelan’s five – but the former has played in more games.
Conor Hourihane has a tendency to argue with officials and has picked up a few of his yellow cards this season – and is the first to get heavily involved in the scuffles – as seen away at Birmingham after the attack on Jack Grealish, and the recent fracas at Leeds.
There is a strong argument that in a match where the experience of a seasoned international like Whelan could be a vital factor in Aston Villa breaking up Derby County’s play and quickly sending us on the counter-attack, that he should start.
Contrary to that, Dean Smith could look at the undeniably potent danger to the opposition from Aston Villa’s set pieces – with Conor Hourihane standing over the ball, it raises a huge and justifiable expectation of a potential match winning goal – and his thunderous strike against Albion that turned the tie is another reason to argue for Conor’s inclusion.
Should Smith start with Hourihane, given that grabbing the opening goal would put Aston Villa in the driving seat and cause the Rams to collapse as they did across both league games this season – get ahead by a couple of goals and then shore the midfield up and hold onto a lead? Conor has scored three goals on his own against the Rams this season.
Or do we stay as tight as possible, with Whelan starting and Hourihane standing by as a great option if we need a goal to win the game.