Long gone are the days in which Olof Mellberg and Martin Laursen rose above opposition defences to score week after week, but Aston Villa’s performance on Saturday gave a glimmer of how the Austin MacPhee revolution is up and running.
As Villa nervously played their way through a tight first half, the reasoning behind Austin MacPhee’s appointment as ‘Specialist Set Piece Coach’ became evident. With Newcastle having the better of the first half, including a glaring miss from Callum Wilson, all it took was a long throw and a moment of magic from Danny Ings to break the deadlock. Ings will take the plaudits for the world-class finish, but MacPhee was the brains behind the goal.
The goal was so simple in nature but helped to break down a very stubborn well-drilled Steve Bruce defence with ease. Seemingly Dean Smith has thought if the ball goes out of play up to 20/30 times a game, why can’t we take full advantage of those situations?
Although hindsight suggests this appointment has come a season too late, with the insurmountable number of fouls Jack Grealish earnt Villa last season not likely to replicate itself, I believe MacPhee is a hidden gem of a coach. MacPhee’s Hearts team were renowned for their imagination from set plays, catching defences out time after time rather like Villa did at the weekend.
MacPhee has joined a Villa side who struggled for creativity from set plays all season long, only scoring two goals from corners throughout the whole 2020/21 season. Villa seemingly lacked the quality and imagination needed to break down teams from dead-ball situations.
Clearly, Smith has now acknowledged this problem and an upturn in our fortunes should be just around the corner. Within the squad the strength of Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa and Wesley should be aplenty if the right balls are put into the right areas.
If Villa are intent on European football next season then this proficiency from set-pieces is a necessity. Couple this with our natural counter-attacking style of play and Villa should be held in good stead in the attacking half of the pitch this season.
The Importance of Conor Hourihane
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Hourihane has been kept on by Smith this season, as his ability from dead-ball situations could prove essential to Aston Villa’s fight for European football.
Hourihane, who to me is a set-piece specialist, does not offer enough from open play to justify a spot in the starting XI and therefore must only be used when the situation requires it.
When taking a deeper look into Hourihane’s numbers, you can understand why Villa fans were so frustrated about his loan move to Swansea earlier this year. In his 2018/19 campaign, Hourihane registered 8 assists directly from set plays, following this up with another 4 in 2019/20, including a memorable free-kick against Newcastle under the lights at Villa Park.
If Hourihane could get anywhere close to those numbers this season, he will be worth his weight in gold, as a Grealish-less Villa will inevitably not create as many goal-scoring opportunities from open play.
Although I don’t believe Hourihane will play week in week out for Villa this season, having him on the fringes will still give MacPhee plenty of options with the quality of his delivery.
When pairing Hourihane’s wand of a left foot, Ashley Young’s dependable delivery and the long throws of Matty Cash, Villa can once again be a danger from set plays.