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xV: Thoughts on Conor Hourihane’s left foot and how Villa should approach the second leg

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from Aston Villa’s first-leg win over West Bromwich Albion. One of those is about how not to protect a lead when two of the best attacking teams in the league are on the pitch.

Aston Villa v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship Play-off Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a look at the numbers behind Villa’s results! We’re at half-time of this play-off semi-final, and Aston Villa lead West Bromwich Albion 2-1. Let’s look back at the first leg and discuss how the Claret and Blues should approach the second.

Conor Hourihane is a special talent

…or perhaps it’s just his left foot.

In all seriousness, though, I love Conor. I also know and recognize that he’s been a polarizing figure around the club at times, because there are absolutely days where he looks like a passer-by. He’s at his best when he’s able to worry about moments of brilliance, just like the one he provided Saturday.

Aston Villa v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship Play-off Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images

What a moment. What a strike. What a foot.

As Villa supporters, we went years without goal-scorers in our midfield. Like, when Leandro Bacuna bagged five in a season, it was a big deal. I felt like Tom Cleverley was a big loss after he left Villa. He scored three goals for the club!

When Hourihane signed for the club in the winter of 2017, man, I was so happy. We were finally going to get over that hump, get goals from midfield, and push forward. But then Conor only scored once in 17 appearances that season, as Steve Bruce seemingly refused to play him in an appropriate role, and we were left wondering again whether or not he was good enough.

Almost as soon as last season kicked off, the tide turned for the Republic of Ireland midfielder. Since the start of the 2017/18 season, Hourihane has played in nearly every match for Villa — he’s made 88 appearances in the 96 league or play-off matches — and in the process, has now bagged 19 league goals and added 14 assists. This season, he’s been involved in 20 of Villa’s now-83 goals.

When you see that stat, think about where Hourihane’s been deployed this season. More often that not, he’s playing in the most “defensive” slot of a three-man pairing, particularly if John McGinn and Jack Grealish are also on the pitch.

In that context, those stats are incredible, and they’re a true luxury to have.

The bigger luxury? Hourihane didn’t start Saturday, and may not start Tuesday, and you can hardly blame the manager when he doesn’t. The aforementioned McGinn (16 goal involvements) and Grealish (12 in a shortened season) do more than their fair share of attacking, and Glenn Whelan’s been great for Villa in a truer defensive role when Hourihane isn’t on the pitch.

Dean Smith’s selection headache tomorrow — Hourihane or Whelan? — is a lovely one to have.

West Brom showed Villa how not to defend a lead

Football’s a funny game. Last year, Aston Villa got an early goal at Middlesbrough in the play-off semi-final, then sat on it for the next couple hours of football. It worked and they progressed 1-0 on aggregate. This year, WBA got an early goal at Villa, then sat on it for the rest of the afternoon. They return home to The Hawthorns down 2-1.

One big difference? 2018 Boro were managed by Tony Pulis. 2019 Villa are managed by Dean Smith.

I’ve talked a lot about game states before in columns like this, and use them to explain things like Villa’s 21-5 edge in shots Saturday. The rationale, as it typically goes, is that the trailing team should finish the match with the edge in shots, since they needed to score a goal more than their opponents. We’ve all seen this before — a team scores early, then locks up shop, and sees out a nervy 1-0 win.

Here’s the thing, though: both Villa and West Brom are better attacking teams than defending ones; together, they were two of just three teams this season in the Championship to score at least 80 goals (champions Norwich City were the other squad), while also being the only two promotion candidates to concede at least 60 times. Sitting back and trying to see out a win never seemed like a viable strategy, and now they have to go home and make up a deficit without both Dwight Gayle and Hal Robson-Kanu.

If there’s one thing I want to see out of Villa tomorrow, it’s a desire to attack. They don’t have to come out and be reckless, and I don’t even think they need to dominate (or try to dominate) the ball, but they shouldn’t expect to defend for 90 minutes and see out the tie. I think Dean Smith knows this.

If Villa get opportunities early in the game to boss the game, they’ll gladly take them, and it’s absolutely the right approach. If you get 3-1 up on aggregate with an hour to go, then maybe you get a little cautious and look to hit on the break. Villa don’t, however, need to do that from the get-go. They saw how well it worked for WBA on Saturday.

Whatever happens, this has been a great run

Aston Villa won 10 straight matches to get into the play-offs, then when they got there, turned a 1-0 home deficit on 70 minutes into a 2-1 lead (and win) by 80. There’s something really special about this team, and I truly hope it continues past tomorrow.

If it doesn’t though, it’ll suck, but hopefully it doesn’t fade into memory. The club are in a good place right now, with the correct leader at the helm. Smith has turned Villa into the exciting, attack-minded force we knew they could (and should) be, and it’s paid huge dividends. Hopefully it pays the nine-figure one at the end of the month, but even if it doesn’t, success is in our future. Days like Saturday show that.