Conor Hourihane has not played a full 90 minutes since Aston Villa’s 3-0 loss against Watford after Christmas.
Words: Andrew Maddox | @MaddoxJourno
Let us pose a question.
Who scored in the play-off campaign, has played his part in several big goals for Aston Villa in the Premier League – and yet is struggling to get into the team and hold down a position?
The answer, of course, is Conor Hourihane. The Irish midfielder has been mostly fantastic in his three years at Villa Park and absolutely deserves a shot in the team.
Don’t mix this up with a dismissal of Danny Drinkwater. His Premier League winners medal and European competition experience should speak for his credentials – but the midfielder is struggling to shake off his ‘rust’. The midfielder did not play at all last season, and made a single appearance for Burnley in the first half of this season.
Yes, he has had a difficult start to his Aston Villa career but acclimatising to regular football after a prolonged period on the sidelines is bound to be difficult.
A comparison between the two aforementioned midfielders comes up favourably for Hourihane. From Premier League matches this season, Hourihane has five goal contributions compared to Drinkwater’s none, and these goals from Conor have proven to be huge for Aston Villa. It was Hourihane that scored in vital wins against Newcastle, and twice against Norwich. If a game requires a spark, or a match-winning goal, you’d likely turn to the Irish maestro.
Conor Hourihane has always been a more creative midfielder – despite often being played in deeper roles. He attempts less passes per game than Drinkwater on average, 22.5 compared to 38.5, the accuracy of his pass is higher. Hourihane’s pass completion of 88.43% is marginally better than Jack Grealish’s at 84.78 – although Jack has had more game time to affect his statistics. But Hourihane get’s himself into more dangerous positions – shown via his attempts at almost three crosses per game compared to Danny Drinkwater’s 0.2.
Drinkwater is the more defensive option, yet Hourihane continues to compete with the Chelsea loanee in that area too. Both average around one clearance per game, with Drinkwater slightly edging aerial clearances. Republic of Ireland international Hourihane is seemingly stonger in the air despite this, winning five aerial battles compared to Drinkwater’s nil.
There’s also the errors. Drinkwater has made errors leading to goals, whereas Hourihane has not made any – none that have been picked up by statisticians anyway. Danny also is dispossessed far more frequently, averaging 0.6 times per game compared to the 0.18 per game of Hourihane. Whilst the newer signing is marginally better defensively, the fact of the matter is that Aston Villa would not lose a great amount of defensive security if Hourihane was to start a game.
Sentiment does play a large role. Being a new and relatively divisive signing, Danny Drinkwater has not had the opportunity to build a strong connection to the club or fans in the way that Conor Hourihane has.
The Irishman has been with the club through two of the most tumultuous periods of his career, including the ‘rut’ that he’s stuck in now. When Aston Villa were struggling midseason last year, Hourihane received much of the blame and many noticed his head drop as he was substituted in the infamous loss to West Bromwich Albion. However, his 19 goal contributions across 43 appearances proved to play a pivotal role in Aston Villa’s ascension to the Premier League.
Drinkwater is a good midfielder, but has shown that he is struggling to break the chains that are holding him back – a lack of game time and off-the-field issues – but patience for the midfielder is beginning to wear thin.
With crunch battles against Southampton and Newcastle fast approaching, Dean Smith must make a decision whilst John McGinn edges closer to recovery. Drinkwater may release the ball quicker than Hourihane, but his mishaps on the ball put an already vulnerable back line into precarious situations – and with huge games, including the small matter of a cup final approaching – that backline needs as much protection as possible.
Hourihane is by no means a perfect player. He has struggled in certain matches and has drawn criticism over how some of his performances start – but even if the Irishman does not start games, he can provide an attacking option from the bench rather than bringing on a more defensive-minded player and looking to settle for whatever the current score may be.
Conor deserves more than a bit-part role, and his re-inclusion may just be enough to lift the heavy burden on Danny Drinkwater’s shoulders.