Despite playing a starring role in Aston Villa’s promotion-winning season from the Championship, Irish midfielder Conor Hourihane has struggled to find a place in Dean Smith’s starting XI following the club’s return to the Premier League.
Hourihane, 29, scored eight goals and registered 11 assists in 2018/19 as Villa reached the play-off final, where the West Midlands side defeated Derby County to regain their place in the Premier League after a three-year absence.
Alongside the likes of Jack Grealish and John McGinn, Hourihane was exceptional for Villa in the previous campaign, and therefore the Irishman can consider himself to be very hard done by to have lost his place in the starting XI.
Smith has opted to deploy summer signing Douglas Luiz in a centrally defensive role at the expense of Hourihane, meaning Grealish and McGinn have retained their spots in the offensive set-up for Villa.
This is an understandable move from Smith in aiming to construct a balanced team with attacking capabilities alongside defensive rigour, yet Hourihane is unquestionably a player who is able to offer both in the centre of the park. Luiz did display his attacking abilities with a wonder-strike in Villa’s 2-1 defeat to AFC Bournemouth at Villa Park, but the Brazilian is primarily a player whose duties are defensively orientated.
Smith is now faced with a dilemma as to the identity he wishes to build with this Villa team. Hourihane’s inclusion would point to an attacking, aggressive selection that is based on a desire for Villa to break teams down with their offensive play, yet Luiz offers a more balanced option who holds attacking and defensive credentials.
Villa were promoted largely due to their club-record winning streak in the Championship, and this was hugely based on their attacking abilities and identity of outscoring teams.
Whilst the Premier League does certainly represent a higher calibre of opponent, if Smith is able to turn to Hourihane and re-instate his trust in the Irishman, then this could be a decision that gives the West Midlands’ side a cutting edge for the remainder of the 2019/20 Premier League campaign.