We Need To Talk About Jeff
The style and emphatic nature of Jeff Hendrick's Euro 2016 performances was obvious to all. To many he was Ireland's Player of the Tournament.
Yet subsequent performances have been majorly underwhelming from the St Kevin's Boys graduate. Such is the drop-off in his displays that when Martin O'Neill has a full complement of midfielders available, his selection is likely to come under considerable scrutiny.
Flash in The Pan?
Derby fans may well sneer at the above paragraph and point out that he was "never that good" and that his Euro 2016 performances were a case of the oft-seen average player rising to the big tournament stage. But like a scorned lover, true perspective is rarely availed of by fans of the departed.
But more importantly, from an Irish viewpoint it fails to recognise the quality of his performances in the qualifiers for Euro 2016 (the defeat in Glasgow aside). Outstanding in our famous win against Germany and the game-changer in our scrappy 1-0 victory over Georgia, where he conjured a crucial goal out of nothing.
The fact is, since Giovanni Trapattoni gave him his debut in a friendly against Poland, where one of his first touches was a sublime assist for a Wes Hoolahan goal, his Irish performances have been consistently excellent.
Until Sept 2016 that is.
Is He Over-Rated?
What might be contributing to this? It is hardly the court case "hanging over his head"? Many will point to the fact that he changed club and stepped up to the Premier League in that time. Has that been such a factor?
It certainly hasn't been a seamless transition.
Whilst playing the 7th most minutes for Burnley this season, for any who played 6 games or more, he had the second lowest performance rating by WhoScored.com (make of that what you will), weighing in with one assist and two goals (one of which was, admittedly, an absolute goddam peach).
Competition for Places
While James McCarthy has divided opinion as to his importance to this emerging Irish team, with Glen Whelan edging towards the end of his Irish career, McCarthy is the only real heir to the position of defensive midfield.
Harry Arter's competitive international career has started very brightly but his ability to press and harry (pardon the pun) opposition players means he will probably always need to play alongside rather than instead of a more natural defensive midfield player.
Wing is no longer the best position for a player of Robbie Brady's superlative quality, especially if Jonny Walters returns to wide right upon Shane Long's return. This all points to a congestion of central midfield options for O'Neill to choose from.
Versatility: His Strength or his Problem?
His versatility and ability to play in a number of positions and formations probably means his place is safe at the moment. Against Uruguay, he started at no. 10 but later dropped in as one of the two deep lying midfielders. Previously he has played right midfield for O'Neill (incidentally where Brian Kerr said on Soccer Republic that he thinks he should play) as well as either side of a midfield diamond.
This is something that will please O’Neill. As we look ahead to Austria, the key midfield decision is whether to pick Whelan or Hoolahan. O’Neill can be difficult to predict. When the moment calls for it, he often goes with a bold formation, while on other occasions (eg against Wales with so many absent players) he has gone with a more pragmatic approach.
Going out to put Austria on the back foot could see Hendrick employed as one of two ‘sitters’ with Arter. However, O’Neill will be concerned at the disallowed goal Uruguay scored when Whelan was absent, whereby both players were caught ahead of the ball. This cannot happen on Sunday.
If O’Neill chooses to use Hoolahan for the final 30, then Hendrick will play at no. 10.
Versatility can make and break a player’s career. Playing at 10 is probably his most natural position, particularly in the championship or in a poorer Irish side (which we were 2/3 years ago), but a deeper spot is potentially his most suitable at the more elite level. It could be said that he hasn’t shown the prowess yet to warrant being a 10 in the current side, nor for the Burnley one.
The comparison could be made with the crossroads that Darron Gibson faced 8-10 years ago (in terms of his footballing position rather than personality thankfully) – a rocket of a shot, decent technique but maybe lacking the engine, or defensive awareness of a top deep lying midfielder.
That’s a problem with respect to occupying a defensive midfield slot but is something that can be accommodated at 10, if the player has outstanding quality.
It could be that unless a coach grabs him and moulds him into one or the other, he’ll end up more a Gibson than an O’Shea in terms of versatility.
Make no mistake about it, Jeff Hendrick is a midfield player of the highest quality, who at 25 could yet turn into an all time Ireland great, along with his pal Brady. Few players wearing the green have been so blessed with such a combination of superb technique, a powerful and tall physique, great footwork, athleticism and work rate.
Perhaps it's merely a prolonged blip. The type that often occurs after a player becomes aware of his own fame, and needs to adjust accordingly. But whatever it is, let's hope it sorts itself out sooner rather than later.
Get better soon Jeffrey.