Aston Villa’s 2-1 victory over Ipswich Town at the weekend hasn’t been enough to halt much of the criticism that seems to be sweeping through social media at the moment. One man at the centre of this criticism seems to be Conor Hourihane.
Dean Smith’s promising start understandably raised expectations, perhaps artificially so. There is clear disgruntlement over one or two things amongst many fans that is bubbling under the surface.
As we know, we love a scapegoat at Villa and one of the popular ones at the moment is Hourihane. However, by the way, Villa fans are voicing their views on the Republic of Ireland international, you’d think he was slathered head to toe in Marmite. He is massively dividing opinion.
I am a fan
Personally, I’m a fan of Hourihane. I was really pleased to see him move to the club from Barnsley back in January 2016. At a relatively modest fee of around £2.5 million, I think he has proven himself to be excellent value for money during his time at Villa. In a period where the club has overspent massively on so many players, Hourihane actually represents a rare instance where the club invested shrewdly in a player.
Completely hypothetically, if Hourihane was sold today, the club would make a decent profit on the original deal. This may sound unimpressive in itself, but when you consider that of all of the players that have come and gone in the last few years, the club has only managed to sell three of them. Excluding those that have come through the youth ranks, for any sort of profit in since 2015 (Christian Benteke, Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood), then it becomes much more significant.
I think Hourihane possesses some real technical quality. There is a certain class about him and the way he strikes a ball. In short, his left foot is absolute magic. He scores goals. He grabs assists. So why is he still vilified by a certain section of the support?
Lack of contribution
The argument against Hourihane is that he isn’t contributing enough in matches as a whole. Criticisms I’ve seen include that perhaps defensively, he isn’t up to it. That he shies away from tackling. Maybe his energy levels are lacking and he isn’t dominant enough to control games and dictate the pace of things. And that his passing is too pedestrian.
To be honest, I do think some aspects of this are valid to an extent. But others are extremely unfair and perhaps a couple of myths need debunking.
For example, I don’t think it’s true that he shies out of a tackle. If anything, we’re talking about a player who has picked up bookings with alarming regularity throughout his career by getting stuck into tackles. Hourihane currently has a career total of 60 yellows in just 329 appearances, which averages at a card every 5.5 games. During his time at Villa in particular, before the start of this season, that rate increased, picking up 12 yellows in just 60 appearances (5.1 average games per card). Intriguingly this season though, this has dropped considerably to a rate of a booking every 9.3 games, with three yellows in 28 appearances so far. It’s even more interesting to note that each of those three bookings has all come since the turn of the year.
It’s reasonable that to surmise that there has been a reason for this. Had Steve Bruce spoken to him about the number of cautions he was accumulating which affected his natural combative style? Possibly. An upturn in bookings since Smith’s arrival may support that theory. There is definitely a change this season, whatever the reason may be. But either way, I do think Hourihane has it in him to get stuck into a tackle.
As for Hourihane’s energy levels and tenaciousness being questioned, this never seemed to be an issue before John McGinn arrived at Villa Park. I do think that the Scot’s incredible work rate has the effect of making others around him appear lazy which isn’t necessarily the case. We’d all love a team full of players with McGinn’s persistence and doggedness. But the truth is there aren’t really that many players that work in that way which makes the former Hibernian man standout. Of course, we’d all like to think that if we were wearing the shirt ourselves we’d put in the effort to chase down every ball and run ourselves ragged for 90 minutes each week. It isn’t how football works though in reality.
I think it’s important to look at what we’re expecting from Hourihane. He isn’t a defensive midfielder, so to expect him to be crunching into tackles and be a ball winner is unrealistic. If we want him to be running around in the same mould as McGinn, that is unrealistic too, because very few players compete in that way.
Having said all that, I do think Hourihane can up his game in certain areas. He is far from being alone in that regard. His assists and goals have been vital for us this season, securing important points for us. But I do also agree that there needs to be more of a contribution to his game overall.
There is definitely another gear or two to explore. I would like to see him dictate games more and pull the strings more regularly. I don’t necessarily agree that he always looks for the safe pass, but I do get the impression that he is at times scared to make a mistake. Which is kind of understandable; Villa Park can be unforgiving even for the slightest of errors.
I can also accept that there may be a level of comfort in his game. His goals and assists stats always look good. Perhaps that does create a bit of a safety net for him, feeling that he has contributed enough. Whatever it is, there is something preventing him from stepping up a notch at the moment to a level that I do think he is capable of consistently operating at.
It’s hard to overlook that Hourihane’s natural game is to get forward and look to score goals. He’s not exactly being utilised to showcase those strengths. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what type of midfielder he actually is. In his time at Villa, he has been deployed in several different roles. We know he isn’t a natural defensive midfielder and so to judge him on that isn’t fair. If anything he is a playmaker, looking to create and probe for space.
I actually think a Frank Lampard kind of role suits him best and he has the attributes to be a very successful box to box midfielder. His passing range to start attacks is good enough. He is athletic and rangy enough to get up and down for 90 minutes. We’ve seen his effectiveness numerous times in arriving late in the box to get on the end of things.
To say that Hourihane is no good or that he is ‘rubbish’ is ludicrous. At this level, in particular, the guy is more than useful. Barnsley built their team around him for a reason. Whilst he isn’t going to be the big fish like that at a club like Villa, he is still contributing for us. I can accept that the goals and assists do need to be backed up with a little more in performances. But I think the stick he has been getting lately because he ‘only’ scores and assists goals are extremely harsh.
I find it hard to get on the back of a player who is contributing goals, either scoring or assisting. However, Hourihane is soon to turn 28 years of age and does need to begin upping his performances to really make people take notice of him. Perhaps a fair yardstick is that despite whipping in excellent dead balls and scoring some cracking goals, it’s still rare to really ever hear anyone say that they feel he totally dominated the game or was the outstanding man of the match.
That extra gear needs to be found and shifted into on a more regular basis and he needs to find a way to exert himself on to the game more. Some doubt whether he can do it, but I do think he possesses the attributes to do so. Whilst he shouldn’t be immune from criticism for mistakes and there are improvements to be made in his game, we certainly shouldn’t be scapegoating a player who, at the end of the day, is still making a decent contribution to the cause.