The Newcastle Jets have not won a match this season where Heskey hasn’t scored. It’s a curious statistic, and one that becomes alarming when you consider that the Jets haven’t won in since the 2-1 victory over the Wanderers exactly a month ago. The numbers suggest that Heskey is out of form and is the team’s key player, but the truth runs deeper.
Before considering what sort of role Heskey has in the side, it’s important to understand the setup of Gary Van Egmond’s system. The Jets have settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation after brief experimentation with a 4-3-3, with Bernando Ribeiro ‘in the hole’ behind Heskey.
Out of possession, the wide players are expected to drop back and form a second bank of four, and this focus on shape is unusual considering much of the talk out of Newcastle in pre-season insisted they were going to play an up-tempo possession game.
Yet they play a far more conservative style, comfortable sitting back and soaking up pressure, and the diagram below depicting the return of possession points illustrates this trend.
The majority of turnovers occur deep inside the defensive third, which isn’t surprising when you consider that the front two rarely press the opposition centre-backs – instead, Heskey and Ribeiro flatten alongside each other and work as a duo to prevent passes being played into midfield, as can be seen in the images below.
This runs contrary to what one would expect in a possession-based system, because Van Egmond is clearly happy for his players to concede the ball in favour of a stronger shape. Pressing does require high levels of fitness – which partly explains Brisbane Roar’s dip in form under Rado Vidosic (more on that later) – and with his size and age, it’s easy to understand why Van Egmond is reluctant to encourage Heskey to defend from the front at a high intensity. Still, this raises questions about the suitability of his signing.
That said, Heskey’s still the Jets top scorer, and his biggest contributions this season have been as a poacher, with his goals coming from crosses into the penalty box. But do Newcastle have room for a poacher? After all, trends in modern football suggest one-dimensional strikers are on the wane as football becomes more about organisation and intelligence. A quick glance across over forwards in the league indicates as much: Berisha, Tadic, Jeronimo, Gibbs (and Kresinger) and McBreen are all hard-working strikers who have dual jobs both as goal-scorers and defenders.
The latter was Heskey’s opposing striker on Saturday night, and as Brett Taylor noted for the Leopold Method, “the immobility of Heskey when it comes to defending from the front, particularly when compared with the likes of McBreen, might seem like a microscopic issue in the context of what the marquee man offers the team, but in these instances it shows how the little details count.”
Returning to the return of possession points statistics, it is revealing that of the 136 times Newcastle regained the ball, Heskey was only directly involved once. A caveat to this analysis is that are other intangible contributions a player can make to winning the ball, but the extraordinarily low tally from Heskey feels significant, especially considering McBreen was involved in 4 of 124 for the Mariners, and played nearly twice as many passes.
But Heskey does have his obvious uses: as a strong, burly player, he is an obvious outlet for long balls, and a suitable target for passes aimed at relieving pressure.
At first glance, the contrast of red/blue might not seem like much, but that’s before you consider that Heskey’s percentage of aerial duels outnumbers every single one of his teammates, with his performance against the Heart of particular note.
Again, the analysis from this data stems back to Van Egmond’s promise of a short passing game. Heskey is clearly being used as a target for long balls, and too often Newcastle fall for the temptation of going direct, compromising their proposed ideals. Although the Mariners deserve credit as the most organised side in the A-League, Conor Chapman’s propensity for hitting diagonals towards Heskey was a far too common trend.
Furthermore, going long towards Heskey tends to lead to ball turnover anyway, as illustrated by his lack of accurate passes against the Mariners. He boasts supreme chest control but opponents can wait for to bring it down and then surround him with defenders – as the Mariners did by instructing Hutchinson and Montgomery to sit deep, close to Sainsbury – which prevents him from linking up with his attackers. Against the Mariners, just two of his passes went to one of the ‘three’ in the 4-2-3-1.
It is suitable to contrast this against McBreen because both sides were using similar 4-2-3-1 systems, and with twelve passes to fellow attackers from the Central Coast player (and twenty-seven one-touch passes compared to Heskey’s none, revealing the tendency of the former to receive passes along the ground) it sums up the difference between the two.
Part of the reason for Heskey’s isolation can be linked to Newcastle’s strategy, as discussed earlier. With the wide players focused on keeping disciplined defensive positions, they are drawn deep and further away from Heskey, meaning they can struggle to come inside into more dangerous attacking positions.
Furthermore, James Brown has replaced James Virigili in the starting line-up, and the former Gold Coast winger is less inclined to take on defenders in one-on-one situations, and as a result, more crosses are coming from deeper positions rather than close to the byline as they were in the early rounds.
This is a remarkable difference from Heskey’s first few games in Australia, where Newcastle played higher up the pitch, with the attacking players benefiting from being in greater proximity to Heskey, as was crucial in the 3-2 win over Sydney.
Opposition full-backs are also becoming more aware of the threat the wingers pose in creating chances for Heskey, so they are placed under specific instruction to stay tight to their direct opponent and prevent balls being played into the box, which limits both their ability to provide service and link up with Heskey.
On the few occasions that the wide players are able to receive passes from Heskey the opportunity comes when they are moving directly beyond him into space.
Heskey’s good hold-up play contributed to the creation of this chance, but the final image shows him fifteen metres behind the play, nowhere near his ideal position inside the penalty box, which becomes another issue.
Heskey’s statistics look better when considering his previous match against Brisbane Roar, where he linked up with Brown, Bernando and Ryan Griffiths seven times. He enjoys a good relationship with the latter, with four of those seven between the two, but the rapport stretches beyond tangible measures, as Griffiths is often able to take advantage of the space created by Heskey’s physical presence.
That is because defenders tend to play high up the pitch against Heskey, safe in the knowledge his pace isn’t threat, but with the added threat of Griffiths, the combination of speed and power makes it difficult for defenders to set their defensive line correctly. The 2-1 win over the Melbourne Victory is a fine example of this, and although it is not a final word, within the context of Heskey’s recent slump Griffith’s injury becomes more significant.
But a return to the centre for Griffiths would see playmaker Bernando displaced from the line-up, and the Brazilian’s supreme awareness of space and outstanding vision would be a loss to the side. Yet he’s not really a suitable partner for Heskey, given the Englishman rarely makes runs in behind onto through balls, and is rarely caught offside (just the once against the Mariners).
The other option would be to move Griffiths back into his old position at lone striker, but dropping the marquee seems hugely unlikely. The over-arching answer would be to introduce the high pressure game, but the flaws in such a strategy have already been explained. Van Egmond proclaimed upon Heskey’s signing that he was the final piece of the jigsaw. Maybe he still is the final piece, but at the moment the puzzle isn’t quite coming together.
Further reading: Beau Busch on Heskey’s form at Australian Football Files