Both players are in incredible form since joining their loan clubs. Did Dean Smith make a mistake?
Words: Harry Trend | @HazaTrand
With Aston Villa hitting a rough patch and Dean Smith rotating his side more than ever, a section of the Aston Villa fanbase are questioning the decision to let Conor Hourihane and Frédéric Guilbert leave on loan in January.
Earlier this season it was hard to imagine Dean Smith putting out an Aston Villa side that didn’t read: Martinez, Targett, Mings, Konsa, Cash, McGinn, Luiz, Grealish, Barkley, Trezeguet and Watkins. However, due to injuries, individual player form and fatigue, Smith has been forced to adjust this once sure-fire XI.
Aston Villa’s January transfer window business was a case of “better out than in.” During the month Smith released the out of favour Henri Lansbury and loaned out several U21’s players as well as Lovre Kalinic, Frédéric Guilbert and Conor Hourihane.
Realistically, there was never much chance of Lovre Kalinić getting much game time at B6 with the excellent Emiliano Martinez, dependable Jed Steer and now returning Tom Heaton all ahead of him in the goalkeeping pecking order.
On the other hand, Conor Hourihane and Frédéric Guilbert, two players that Smith used frequently last season, may have had more of a chance getting into the starting XI in recent games had they been allowed to stay. Moreover, both are performing well for their respective loan sides.
Despite a strong finish to the 2019/20 season, Frédéric Guilbert failed to make a league appearance for Aston Villa in 2020/21 before leaving for Ligue Un side Strasbourg on January the 31st. During this period Matty Cash was Smith’s player of choice on the right side of defence, with Ahmed Elmohamady starting the one game Cash missed against Wolves instead of the seemingly third choice Guilbert. It was clear to see where Smith’s preferences lay at right-back, and in turn, Guilbert moved to Ligue Un side Strasbourg in search of game time.
And game time is exactly what Guilbert has got so far at Strasbourg. Not only that, but the 26-year-old has put in some strong performances for the French side having made it into the Whoscored.com Ligue 1 team of the month for February before scoring a rasping last-minute winner in a 1-0 triumph against highflying Monaco last Wednesday. In the four games he’s played for Strasbourg, Guilbert has picked up two assists, both perfectly weighted deep crosses, and topped club stats in terms of blocks (3) and tackles (4) per 90 minutes.
Since Matty Cash picked up a hamstring injury at Brighton in February, Ahmed Elmohamady has deputised for the former Nottingham Forest man – a hard job considering Matty Cash’s form in a Villa shirt. Unfortunately, Elmo just hasn’t hit the standards required of a European chasing side since acquiring a place in Smith’s starting XI. The Egyptian full-back, who admittedly hasn’t been helped by the defensive work rate of the winger in front of him, struggled to contain Harvey Barnes in Villa’s defeat to Leicester and switched off as David McGoldrick slid home to put Aston Villa to the sword at Bramall Lane.
In turn Elmohamady has offered little to Villa in attack. Perhaps a cross from the more dynamic Guibert might have resulted in a goal unlike the 33 deliveries Villa unsuccessfully put in during the defeat to Sheffield United.
Like Guilbert, Conor Hourihane has also been a great boost to his loan club’s fortunes. Since joining Swansea on the 20th January, the Irishman has chipped in with four goals and two assists. Moreover, Hourihane has helped the Swans to six league wins in nine as the Welsh side’s Championship promotion push builds momentum.
Also like Guilbert, new signings have disrupted Hourihane’s place in Dean Smith’s Aston Villa XI. The 30-year-old was an almost guaranteed first-team pick in Dean Smith’s 2018/19 Championship side with his impressive passing range alongside finishing and dead-ball abilities. Even with the addition of Marvelous Nakamba and Douglas Luiz to Villa’s midfield in 2019/20, Hourihane still made 18 starts. However, the signing of Ross Barkley this season, alongside the emergence of Jacob Ramsey, severely limited Hourihane’s game time up until his move in the January transfer window. Against the top sides in the league the former Barnsley midfielder lacks the presence in midfield that he did in the Championship – his last start in a Villa shirt away to West Ham being an example of this.
Smith made it clear that it was Hourihane’s “desire” to go out on loan – and being in his peak years as a footballer, who can blame him? Not only that, but Sanson’s arrival from Marseille meant Hourihane would drop even further down Smith’s midfield pecking order.
Would Hourihane improve this Villa midfield on current form? It’s hard to give a concrete answer, but perhaps the Irishman would be a better option off the bench than the out-of-sorts Ross Barkley or low-on-confidence Keinan Davis.
The middle three of Marvelous Nakamba, Jacob Ramsey and John McGinn did an excellent job in helping to grind out a 1-0 victory against Leeds. However, in the combined goalless 180 minutes against Sheffield United and Wolves, the Pride lacked invention (especially in the absence of Jack Grealish), and a willingness to make late runs into the penalty area when Ollie Watkins would drift out wide. This was a speciality of Hourihane’s 11-goal 2017/18 season.
It’s often the case in fan-led football media that the difference maker in a losing side is the player who isn’t playing, and this could be the case here. After all, as fans, we’re not the ones watching these players train every day.
Moreover, Guilbert and Hourihane may both be playing well, but it’s important to remember that the quality of leagues they’re performing in is a step down from the Premier League.
Ultimately, players performing well at loan clubs is a positive regardless of whether they would get into the current XI at this moment. Nevertheless, Dean Smith’s side will have to cope without the services of Guilbert and Hourihane as they look to recapture some of that early season form in the remaining 12 league fixtures.