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xV: Some thoughts on set pieces, market inefficiencies and Conor Hourihane

Conor Hourihane’s assist at Norwich City last Tuesday night displays the one thing that makes him more valuable than you think: his set piece prowess.

Burton Albion v Aston Villa - Carabao Cup Second Round Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column that takes a statistical approach to analyzing Villa’s play. This week, we’ll take a look at Conor Hourihane, his role at the club, and the value his left foot brings.

I started thinking about this column watching Villa last Tuesday when Hourihane’s perfect corner delivery for James Chester helped put our guys up 1-0 at Norwich City. Everything went to hell once the second half kicked off, though, and what looked like two wins on the bounce for Dean Smith has suddenly become two consecutive losses with a tough stretch ahead.

Even though that’s brought a lot of pessimism back into the fold at Villa, I wanted to come back to the bright spot: that set piece goal.

The most common criticism of Hourihane is that while he’s a great set piece taker and pops up with goal contributions somewhat regularly, he’s often a passenger in the general flow of the game. And on the whole, even as someone who loves Hourihane, I’m not going to dispute that too much, particularly when compared to guys like Jack Grealish and John McGinn, who both play at least a similar position.

That logjam at central midfield has created one of the oddest stats of the season: Hourihane is joint-top of the assists table, yet hasn’t even started half of Villa’s league matches.

But overall, I think we may be thinking about Hourihane backwards — instead of thinking that his involvement decreases his value to the team, what if we focused on how his set piece ability increases his value to the team?

It’s a small, but important, shift to the conversation, and one that’s important because of Smith’s managerial background. Smith comes from Brentford, a club known for being on the cutting edge when it comes to incorporating statistics and metrics, and as importantly here, a club owned by a guy named Matthew Benham.

Benham also owns FC Midtjylland in Denmark, and that’s where the real story is. In Benham’s four seasons as Midtjylland’s owner, his squad’s won two league titles — the first two in the club’s history, and they offer clues to how Hourihane can be hyper-valuable to Villa if you take an analytical approach.

In 2014/15, Benham’s first season as Midtjylland owner, his squad won the league by just four points, and those few points were won squarely on the shoulders of the club’s set piece success. That season, Midtjylland scored 25 set piece goals in 33 league fixtures, by far and away the best in the league — no other Danish top-flight side scored more than 11 that season, and runners-up København scored nine. Those extra 16 goals were vital in securing Midtjylland’s first championship.

Last season, Midtjylland were again winners of the Danish Superliga, but it’s now a competition that looks very different. Three Superliga sides scored at least 20 set piece goals last season, and 10 of the 14 teams in the league scored 12 or more. Danish clubs have picked up on the elite value of the set piece, and if you’re interested in reading more, I highly suggest you take a look at Ted Knutson from Stats Bomb’s “I Think We Broke Denmark” article about that Midtjylland team. Knutson worked for Benham and helped put together the program that led the 2014/15 Midtjylland side to the title.

Knutson’s also got more material available on the value of set pieces you should take a look at if you’re interested. One of them has notes on how clubs that focus on set pieces can significantly boost their offensive output — Knutson believes a team could add 15-20 goals by focusing heavily on set piece routines, which is far cheaper than buying a striker who’s going to add 15-20 goals (this is the “Moneyball” market inefficiency at play here). Another includes the suggestion that Chelsea beat Manchester City to the 2016/17 Premier League title due to their set piece superiority. He’s one of the brightest minds in football, particularly on this specific subject.

The idea that a club should focus on set pieces shouldn’t seem foreign to us, though. We’ve watched Tony Pulis-led sides use them to punch above their weight time and time again, and if that wasn’t enough to legitimize the tactic, we just watched a World Cup this summer where 70 set piece goals were scored, with England making a semi-final run largely on the shoulders of set piece success. Where Pulis’ teams have often been derided for being defensive and using set pieces to try and overcome a lack of talent, Gareth Southgate’s England side were the complete opposite: a young, exciting, talented attacking side that turned to set pieces to gain a competitive edge. Every single football club should be doing the same.

Which ultimately brings us back around to Hourihane. Yes, if Smith is to start Hourihane over Grealish, McGinn or even Birkir Bjarnason, there’s probably something lost in the ability to dominate a game. That will probably cost you a few goals over the course of the season. But that drawback must be properly weighed against the benefit Hourihane provides from set pieces. If Smith chooses to focus on set pieces at Villa (and I’d suggest he do), he may want to look for creative ways to get the Irishman into his team. Perhaps he could pivot away from his 4-2-3-1 formation, or perhaps he could just look to use Hourihane as a “super sub,” bringing him on in the final 30 minutes when Villa are behind or level to try and manufacture a crucial goal.

Regardless, Hourihane’s left foot is one of the best set piece weapons in the Championship, and it’s one that can singlehandedly add several goals to Villa’s tally this season if the club make it a focus. Any player who can do that needs to have a role in the team.