Some Aston Villa fans rate the Irish midfielder, whilst others believe he’s a squad player at most. We try to break his game down.
Words: Guy Poxon | @GuyPoxon
Aston Villa’s Irish wizard isn’t an exciting, Xavi-esque play-maker or a hard-tackling enforcer. Conor has a good attacking contribution to the team, a wand of a left foot and he’s a threat from set pieces. As one of Villa’s leading goal contributors and a good team leader, why is it so hard to determine whether Conor should start or not?
Conor’s notable contributions this season
- September – goal against Brighton in the EFL Cup
- October – goal, assist and man of the match against Norwich in the 5-1 win
- November – goal and assist in Villa’s 2-0 win against Newcastle.
- December – winning goal against Norwich, and a goal in Villa’s 5-0 against Liverpool’s youth side in the cup.
- June – Villa’s man of the match against Sheffield United for that (infamous) 0-0. The assist for Elmo’s goal against Newcastle which finished 1-1.
- July – assist for Trezeguet’s goal in the 2-0 win against Crystal Palace. The assist for Konsa’s goal which earned the 1-1 against Everton.
In terms of points, Hourihane is probably responsible for about 9-12 points in terms of his goals and assists (not counting cup games or games where we won by 3+ goals). That’s no small contribution, and if it only shows one thing; it’s that Conor Hourihane scores and assists goals at every level. To be fair, when you have a left foot like Conor that isn’t surprising.
But the big question of Hourihane has never been about his set pieces, it’s always been: “Does Conor Hourihane actually do his job well as a midfielder?”
What Hourihane offers other than set pieces
When you think of the Irishman you tend to remember plenty of great goals, but not too many crunching tackles of defence-splitting passes. Well, he’s earned the 5th highest rating for the season out of any Villa player for the 2019/20 campaign and that does add some credit to his consistency. However, the in-game stats do tell a different, divided, story:
- Tackles per 90 minutes – 0.6 (16th)
- Interceptions per 90 minutes – 0.3 (16th)
- Blocks per 90 minutes – 0.1 (12th)
- Dribbled past per 90 minutes – 0.6 (13th)
- Shots per game – 1.1 (8th)
- Key passes per game – 1.4 (2nd)
- Dribbles per game – 0.1 (20th)
- Dispossessed per game – 0.3 (7th best)
- Number of passes per game – 22.7 (16th)
- Pass completion – 82.7% (4th)
- Crosses per game – 1 (2nd)
Conor’s strengths this season were crossing, passing accuracy, making key passes in the attacking third and taking shots. This corresponds well to the position where Hourihane played his best football; playing on the left of midfield acting as another winger/runner to support Jack Grealish and Matt Targett. From this position he would make runs in behind the back four and get a shot away, or he could get into a wide area and put in crosses.
What Conor is not good at, like most attacking midfielders, is tackling and the defensive side of the game. In terms of Aston Villa’s midfield players, Hourihane comes in 5th place for tackles per game. That’s less than Drinkwater and on par with Lansbury. For interceptions, Hourihane comes 6th out of Villa’s midfielders. He also doesn’t drive the ball forward much with his dribbling.
This is probably why some Villa fans rate him, and some Villa fans really don’t rate him. At one end of the pitch he is very effective, but at the other end (the end where Aston Villa spend most of our time, defending), he’s largely ineffective. You do wonder, if Hourihane could make one more tackle per game, if he could just go and win the ball just a bit more, we would have quite the exceptional player on our hands.
Should Conor start games?
We have established that Hourihane is a fine attacking option, who retains the ball well but leaves a lot to be desired defensively and doesn’t get on the ball as much as other midfielders. John McGinn and Douglas Luiz certainly make the cut for the first two spots in Smith’s midfield 3 and that is for good reason. McGinn is Villa’s second highest rated player and looks like he’s getting back into form after his injury. Meanwhile, Luiz’s shaky start makes him less consistent this season than Conor, but his talent and growth into a promising ball-playing midfielder is something that cannot be overlooked.
The other spot is up for grabs, and among the current suitors are:
WIth Lansbury and Hourihane both offering more of an attacking style of play and both being 29 years old, it’s pretty clear that Hourihane wins this battle.
As for Nakamba, well; Marvelous does offer something different in that position – namely the defensive side of the game:
|Conor Hourihane||Marvelous Nakamba|
|Shots per game||1.1||0.2|
|Aerial duels won per game||0.5||0.8|
|Tackles per game||0.6||1.9|
|Key passes per game||1.4||0.4|
|Number of passes per game||22.7||27|
In these selected areas of comparison (of which there are many), you can see the value of both Hourihane and Nakamba from open play. However, the Irishman’s set piece delivery is something that Villa miss when he’s not on the pitch.
Perhaps you might start Nakamba in games where Villa expect to be under a lot of pressure – like Man City away, or Liverpool away. Marvelous will help where Villa need to break up the play. However, Hourihane’s stats prove that his attacking capabilities can complement Douglas Luiz and John McGinn’s dogged defensive styles, and Aston Villa’s form since the restart proves that this balance in midfield is probably the best option for the club right now.
It is that added bit of attacking quality that has helped Aston Villa to safety in addition to a better defensive showing. The points that Conor has earned for us, notably against Newcastle, Palace and Everton, cannot be undervalued. It is this reason why I think that Aston Villa will prioritise recruiting attackers and defenders, while relying on the existing midfield that helped to steady the ship after the restart.
What might change the dynamic is if Dean Smith goes out and buys an all-action midfielder within this transfer window – one who adds quality in attack with forward dribbles and delivery, while also adding more defensive contributions. Even then, you should never count the Irishman out as he will fight for his place, like he’s done before.
Whether Conor Hourihane starts the new Premier League campaign in Aston Villa’s first 11 – and I think he will – or whether he has to fight for his spot once again, it’s worth remembering that Hourihane is one of Villa’s leaders.
The Irishman really cut his teeth in League Two and League One for Plymouth Argyle and Barnsley. His move to Oakwell saw him become a regular at Barnsley and very popular with the home crowd. He did Conor things; scoring 30 times in around 115 appearances, helping to win promotion to the Championship and starting off life in the second tier very well – making 25 appearances and scoring another 6 goals.
He was a cut above the rest at Barnsley and that is testament to his work ethic – but his personality was also rewarded with the captaincy, as Hourihane really did lead the line at Oakwell.
His former coach, Paul Heckingbottom, paid tribute to his captain’s class after Hourihane’s last game for the reds: “What Conor did really well here was that he left with a bit of class and in style and signed off with a goal. That is what people remember him for. He was here at the game the other night, so I had a quick catch-up with him. Conor is a very grounded, humble lad and he knows what Barnsley have done for him.”
Barnsley’s captain and talisman led the club to promotion, lifting two trophies at Wembley before his move to B6. Since then, he’s won promotion with Villa to the Premier League and was an integral part of Aston Villa’s survival in the last weeks of the league.