Friday night I started to construct my thoughts on Aston Villa’s latest Irish duo and their impact upon the side so far this season.
I left it until today to add more evidence to the portfolio of concerns before sharing my thoughts.
Villa have had an affinity with Irish internationals in years gone by. Most notably during the early to mid 90’s with the likes of Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend and God himself, Paul McGrath.
I’ve been fortunate enough to go to virtually every home and away game this season and despite the awful start to proceedings, the lift September brought was exactly what we all needed.
As good a run as Villa had during September, our wins were against teams in the lower echelons of the Championship. The side also haven’t looked very convincing during some of those wins. Sam Johnstone has often been the man to protect leads and keep us in games too. But the area I’m most interested in is our central midfield.
Just last week, Glenn Whelan and Conor Hourihane (along with Scott Hogan) were a part of the Republic of Ireland side that beat Wales and subsequently secured a playoff for Russia 2018. As you can probably tell already I have a lot of love for Ireland and it would be great to see some of the Villa players playing their part for Ireland next summer should they qualify.
However, should Whelan and Hourihane manage to get a start next summer, I would implore Martin O’Neill to fix their positioning if it matches what we are seeing when they wear claret and blue.
Yesterday wasn’t just a test, it was a measure of how far we have come against a side doing well, whilst playing some exciting, continental football. It turned out to be anything but a test, in fact it was a lesson. You have to hold your hands up when you’re outplayed and we were in all aspects.
The thing that really stood out for me yet again above all else and it’s been going on for weeks for me, are the roles in which Whelan and Hourihane have together.
Hourihane joined from Barnsley boasting an impressive goal and assist tally. He is still on course to be our highest scoring midfielder in a season for a long time but I can’t help but feel his game is being affected by his current midfield partner.
Whelan’s primary job is to scrap out in front of the defence and look to play us out and be the start point of an attack. However time after time he appears to keep turning back and any chance of a quick counter attack is quashed.
But this isn’t the main issue for me. Hourihane must’ve made three or four challenges in and around our own box yesterday as a result of being one of our quickest midfielders and having to make up ground lost by Whelan. I can’t help but feel that Whelan is forcing Hourihane to drop back and this is subsequently preventing him from getting forward more and linking up the midfield and the forwards. We have seen first hand the ability he has when he bombs forwards.
It could be argued that this is down to Bruce’s tactics. Yesterday, Wolves were the better side, but we had eight players in or around our box for most of the game. It must be just as frustrating for the likes of Hourihane as it is for us as supporters.
The next few weeks pose two further tests in the shape of Fulham and then the away day clash with bitter rivals Birmingham City.
Fulham attacked at will against us last season and I think they’ll look to get at us next weekend. As for Birmingham, the new manager factor and the return of Che Adams with Isaac Vassell will see them try and exploit our slower players. Of course I’m not for one minute saying they are as good as Wolves who I genuinely feel are possibly the best footballing side I’ve seen since we entered the Championship.
I firmly believe once fit, Jedinak will be the better option over Whelan but do we need a switch in formation when playing against sides with pace?
One thing is for sure and that is that we need to provide the support to our forwards and allow players like Hourihane to play with more freedom.