Forensically watching an ordinary player: Jeff Hendrick

Matt Stead

In this instalment of ‘Ordinary Player’, we look at a midfielder for Burnley, and discover that being ordinary doesn’t mean you can’t be absolutely unique…

I’ll be perfectly honest – I don’t get Jeff Hendrick. As an attacking midfielder, he’s been a regular member of Burnley’s line-up for two years now, registering an impressive 58 starts overall. He figures in any list of players contributing to Claret success in the Premier League. Like the rest of the side, he goes out and does his job without any fuss, and Sean Dyche is very happy with him. But I still don’t get Jeff Hendrick. So let’s take a look at what I’m missing.

Hendrick joined Burnley from Derby County in the summer of 2016. At the time he was Burnley’s record signing, although in market terms that’s ancient history. He’d had a fantastic season in 2014/15, with seven goals and nine assists for the Rams. Although his production dropped the next year, he more than made up for it with an outstanding showing for Ireland at Euro 2016. He did just about everything for Martin O’Neill’s side, with an all-action attitude, a considerable dose of technical skill, and a willingness to go for goal. That summer Hull City and Burnley competed for his signature, and the Clarets won out.

In his first year at Turf Moor, the side played mostly 4-4-2, with Hendrick usually pairing Dean Marney or Joey Barton in central midfield. The Clarets’ long ball style meant he had few chances to influence the game at the business end of the pitch. He managed only one assist and two goals, one a header from a corner. He didn’t create many chances inside the area: only four from open play all season. But his passing was reliable, and although in defence he was only average, his effort was never in question, and you could count on him for a decent performance every time.

With the change to a five-man midfield this year, Hendrick’s role changed. He now generally plays centrally behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, more or less where a traditional number 10 would play. That means he’s stationed significantly farther forward and can influence attacking play accordingly. So with the season near its finish, he has…two assists and two goals. Both of the goals are from open play, at least.

The logical conclusion is that he isn’t really producing in the role. But that would be wrong- at least I think it would be. Hendrick doesn’t score because he doesn’t get into the box all that much: he has fewer shots/90 in the penalty area than Aaron Lennon, Johan Berg Gudmundsson, and Scott Arfield, and roughly the same as Robbie Brady. Those are all wingers, and since the Burnley system relies more on wide players to get into the area, Hendrick isn’t expected to make many runs into the box.

What about assists, then? Surely if you play where a number 10 plays, you should have more than two for the season? If we look at other Burnley players with multiple assists, we find Gudmundsson with six, Matthew Lowton with three, and Brady with two – but Brady was injured less than halfway through the season. Again, all wing players, and if you’re wondering, all but one of those eleven total assists came from open play. As for Hendrick’s two assists, one was a header that may have been intended as a shot, and the other was a counter-attack pass to an unmarked Ashley Barnes 25 yards out, who scored from the edge of the area.

How about chances created? Gudmundsson, Lennon, and Steven Defour have created more chances/90 from open play than Hendrick. Once more, the first two are wingers, and one is a central midfielder who invariably plays deeper. Among players in the league with at least 1,000 minutes, the Irishman ranks 67th in chances created/90 from open play – despite playing in the number 10 spot. He creates a chance with a pass into the penalty area only once every five games.

So if Hendrick is an attacking midfielder, and doesn’t score or assist, and doesn’t really create that many chances, and is his club’s most substituted player, what the heck does he do?

One thing he does very well, maybe better than anyone else in the league, is get into position for the second ball. Burnley send a lot of aerials to the strikers, and if you watch Hendrick closely you’ll see how often he finds a spot where a header is likely to come down.

Another thing he does well is pass. His completion percentage is 79.8%, quite good for a player in an advanced central role. It’s better than Aaron Mooy, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Riyad Mahrez, Dusan Tadic, Nathan Redmond, Pascal Gross and Dele Alli.

Put that together, and you have someone who gets to the ball and keeps the attack going, while himself only rarely creating or scoring goals. In other words, his most frequent task is to recycle the ball in an advanced position.

Ever heard of that kind of player? Neither have I. But the role fits Hendrick perfectly. Playing in the number 10 area, his primary weakness – defending – is minimised. His natural strengths – energy, touch, tactical awareness, passing ability – are maximised. And the whole team benefits, which is why Sean Dyche hasn’t seen fit to acquire any other players who can play that position.

So I guess I get Jeff Hendrick now. In fact, I propose that, much like the famed Makelélé role, there be an official Hendrick role, also known as the ‘Burnley 10’ or ‘Irish trequartista.’ It may take twenty or so years before we find another player who plays it, of course. But that’s because Hendrick plays for Burnley FC, that most ordinary and extraordinary of football clubs.

Peter Goldstein