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xV: Jack Grealish and Conor Hourihane are the duo that can carry Villa to survival

Jack Grealish and Conor Hourihane combined to produce the only goal in Villa’s Boxing Day win over Norwich City. That goal continues a trend where Villa are at their best when those two play well together.

Aston Villa v Norwich City - Premier League
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Conor Hourihane of Aston Villa scores for Aston Villa during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Norwich City at Villa Park on December 26, 2019 in Birmingham, United Kingdom.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Conor Hourihane has been Villa’s talisman this season

I’ll be up front about this: I love Conor Hourihane. Always have, probably always will. If that doesn’t describe you, I get it. If you’re looking for a consistent match-to-match impact out of him, he’s probably never going to meet that need.

The need he can meet, though, is that of a high-level goal scorer and creator out of midfield. It’s something Villa didn’t have before Hourihane’s arrival — remember how excited we all got because Leandro Bacuna scored five goals that one year? — but now it’s something they have two of (hi, Jack Grealish!).

While Grealish is a consistently strong performer for Villa, it’s Hourihane who’s showing to be Villa’s talisman this campaign. The two work so well together, and for better or worse, the duo is at the heart of just about everything Aston Villa have done well. Each of Hourihane’s five goal contributions this season has come in a Villa win, and of the 10 goals scored in Villa’s last four wins, eight have included a goal contribution from at least one of Grealish or Hourihane.

That’s why, in my eyes, Hourihane needs to be in Villa’s XI nearly every match. I don’t really care about the matches where he ”goes missing,” because without him on the pitch, Villa are almost always “going missing” as a team. That doesn’t get you anywhere. What does get you somewhere is the great combination play we saw on Boxing Day between Grealish and Hourihane. That won Villa the full three points against Norwich, and if Villa are to get the points they need to secure survival — they’ll require somewhere in the ballpark of six wins — they’re going to need more great individual combinations.

Who do Villa need to target to get (and stay) out of the bottom three?

The Boxing Day win got us to the halfway point of Villa’s Premier League season, which means I start shifting even more from holding an absolute outlook on the season to a relative one. At the end of the day, Villa don’t need 40 points, or 36, or however many to survive. They just need to end up with more than three other teams got.

Sitting in 18th now, that means Villa need to out-perform at least one ahead of them over the rest of the season, and they’ll want to keep both Watford and Norwich City behind them, too.

Looking at the table, I see four key teams for Villa to target: Southampton (21 pts), Brighton (20), Bournemouth (20) and West Ham United (19). These are the sides placed 14th through 17th in the table, and they all seem like achievable targets: none look like teams that will steer themselves comfortably clear of relegation, and all four are within three points of Villa right now. Other potential candidates — Crystal Palace (26), Newcastle (25) and Burnley (24) — are likely far enough ahead of Villa that if the Claret and Blues pass one of them, they’re finishing well above 17th, while Arsenal (24) and Everton (22) clearly have the talent required to avoid the drop.

It’s worth remembering, then, that Villa remain in the midst of a crucial stretch in their season. Of Villa’s next eight Premier League matches, two are against Watford, while three others are against “target” clubs (and a sixth is against a beatable Burnley team). If Villa are to secure survival this year, they’re likely going to do a lot of the heavy lifting with results in the next few weeks.