We all love a utility player. Something about watching a multi-talented footballer on the pitch, reconciles our expectation of the superhuman nature of our favourite players. The Arsenal U-21 player, Isaac Hayden, who has captained the side on occasion, is one of the few recognized utility players at the club’s Hale End academy. Calvin Gomez provides us with this in-depth scout report.
Who is Isaac Hayden?
Rough, powerful and technical are the 3 words Hayden has used to describe himself as a player. Having been given much of his basic technical education in football from his father, Sol Hayden – a former Aston Villa youth player, Isaac has been toughened to accept the grueling demands of the game both physically and emotionally. He was born on 22nd March, 1995 in Chelmsford, located in Essex in the East of England. Playing football was part and parcel of his life given the background of his father.
When Hayden was 8, he wanted to join a Sunday League team, Brentwood Boys FC and attended a training session. However once his father had a good look at the coaching setup, he decided it simply wasn’t good enough for him. Instead Sol decided to give his son a more personalised regimen of training to teach him the ins and outs of the game. For 2 hours on the weekends and sometimes during the week, Isaac would work on a myriad of technical skills ranging from dribbling, ball control and the like. But it wasn’t just the technical skills he was perfecting; it was also the mental strength that so many players currently lack. Sol would, at times, criticize his son and accuse him of being under par at his game. Like any 8 year old child, this resulted in outbursts of tears and he would be fatigued at the end of the day. In the grand scheme of things, it gave him a much thicker skin, and by the time he was 13, he saw himself as having a mental advantage over most of his peers.
The intense training sessions continued for a year and when Isaac turned 9, he was allowed to join the relatively professional environment of Brentwood Boys FC. It was after his first game at his new team that he was approached by Southend United, who were impressed with the youngster. Sol felt his son needed a more stable introduction into structured football and thus got him to play for Brentwood Boys for a further season before joining Southend’s Under-10s. Much of the influence on Hayden’s current style came at this age when his dad bought a tactics board. Sol would run through each position on the board and Isaac has attributed his multi-disciplined approach to the game, to this initial education.
It was during his 4 year spell at Southend United that Hayden underwent the most significant technical development of his game. His coaches Luke Hobbs and Mark Bonner played a pivotal role in his development, giving him a strong foundation. He captained the Southend Under-12s for a tournament in France and finished runners up; which was a significant achievement considering Marseille, Lyon and Bayern Munich were all involved. However, it was at a game against his current club, Arsenal, when he was first noticed for his talented displays. During an Under-13s fixture, Hayden was played in the holding midfield role and his club was beaten 5-0 by the Gunners. He had had a decent game however and it prompted Arsenal’s scouts to take a closer look at the English youngster. Later on in that year, his team faced Arsenal at Hale End (Arsenal’s youth home) and beat them 9-4 with Hayden scoring 4 goals. He was approached by Arsenal after the game. He accepted their offer and he described this as a “big opportunity” in his career.
The first 3 years were mostly spent getting used to the Arsenal method of playing. He was given a scholarship in 2011, at age 16. The season that followed saw him make 15 appearances playing primarily at centre-back for the Arsenal Under-18s, captaining the Youth team and establishing himself in the England Under-17 setup as well, with 1 goal in 6 appearances to his name. After his successful season as a first year scholar, he won his first professional contract on his 17th birthday, in March 2012. Being burdened with the captain’s armband is a responsibility he particularly enjoys and has claimed it has given him a mental edge in games. A key feature of the 2012-13 season for Hayden was reaching the NextGen Series semi-finals with the Under-19s. He played an important role in the team’s progression through the tournament. The 2013-14 season saw him establish his spot as a senior member of the Arsenal Under-21s. The 25th of September, 2013 also saw Hayden make his first full debut for the senior team, partnering Per Mertesacker in defence for the Capital One Cup clash against West Brom.
Style, Strengths and Weaknesses
Registering Hayden’s specific position on the pitch is not for the unimaginative. It is clear that he has so far been used in a defensive capacity, but has been given the freedom to move around the pitch to dictate play. The extent of his freedom is quite unorthodox to the regular viewer, so much so that it might seem offensive, but it is these qualities that set him apart from the rest of the club’s prospects. It will be more simplistic to comprehend his style of play while exploring the various positions he has been deployed in over the past 18 months.
Centre-Back: Having been used in this position for just under half the games of the 2013-14 season, Hayden established himself as a breaker of opposition plays. More specifically, he has a keen eye for intercepting passes. This ability descends from his excellent reading of the game. He possesses good awareness of the opposing strikers during an attacking move. It should be made clear however that he does not perform his defensive duties by making rash challenges. He plays a comparatively clean game when in this position. He breaks up opposition plays by positioning himself in between the potential passer and receiver. A comprehensive understanding of players’ movements is key to this feature of his game and he has nailed down the knack of consistently thwarting attacks in his defensive third.
But his desire to thwart attacks using only his positional sense has often led to a complete breakdown of the defence around him. Hayden is very hesitant to go into the tackle, which doesn’t render him as effective in thwarting counter attacks. His positional sense is applied to perfection only when the rest of his defence maintains its shape. The lack of a successful contingency skill is exposed when he is one on one with a pacey striker. Hayden is slow on the turn, allowing strikers to knock the ball past him into space. This should not be mistakenly interpreted as him being a slow player. He possesses enough speed to have been deployed on the right wing at the start of the 2014-15 season (discussed later). However, he does not react fast enough to a sudden change in direction. He struggles to keep up with the pace of a dribbling attacker, and then throws in a reckless slide tackle around the edge of the box. His slide tackling has improved over time but it is a potentially disastrous skill to fall back on when you are the last man defending a counter attack.
What he lacks for in tackling ability, he more than makes up for in attacking prowess. Hayden, unlike most defenders, has very good ball control. He is comfortable on the ball and his composure while running with it is astonishing for a defensive minded player. When I first watched Hayden’s forward movement from deep, I was immediately reminded of the age of the Libero. Franz Beckenbauer, the most famous of the Liberos, was excellent on the ball. The West German and Bayern teams of his era frequently relied on him to start attacking moves. His distribution was perfect and his reading of the game made him a thorn in the opposition’s side. It was not uncommon to catch a glimpse of Beckenbauer making a run into the opposition box from a move that he had started only a few seconds earlier from deep within his own half. Why have I made this comparison? Because this is exactly what Isaac Hayden does when his team are either a goal down or level with the opposition.
Hayden often sprays passes from deep to the advancing full backs and the attackers. In an U-21 game against West Brom, he moved into space ahead of Emmanuel Frimpong in defensive midfield and played an accurate 60 yard ball forward to Serge Gnabry, who plucked it out of the air and scored gracefully. This is an ideal example of his vision and technical ability. When in defence, he combines well with the two midfielders ahead of him to carry the ball forward. Steadily but slowly he brings himself into the attacking play until the opposition are confused about who should be picking him up. Another feature of his game that really completes him as a technical defender is his long range shooting, which he is comfortable at attempting with both his left and right foot.
Defensive Midfield: The Arsenal U-21’s most successful encounters have had a midfield pivot consisting of Isaac Hayden and Kristoffer Olsson. Hayden and Olsson complement each other very well. Hayden, due to his height, is strong in the air as well as on the ball. Coupled with his excellent control, as mentioned earlier, this makes him particularly proficient at carrying the ball over large areas of the pitch. In this position, Hayden primarily functions as a deep lying playmaker however. A key area of his game is his significance in the team’s transition from defence to attack. It is not uncommon to see him even leading his team’s counter attack. It deserves to be pointed out that he moves further up field than Olsson sometimes when in possession. This is unusual given how Olsson is the less conservative of the two midfielders; but this is a display of Hayden’s confidence on the ball.
The danger however is when his team lose possession. Having established that he isn’t particularly effective at defending against counter attacks; being caught out of position isn’t much help in this regard. Positional discipline while playing as part of the midfield pivot is vital for his overall game to improve. He continues to use his uncanny reading of the game to his advantage and intercepts the ball at key moments. His reluctance to tackle doesn’t cause as much damage in this case, because he still has defenders behind him who can throw a player off balance. In fact, playing him at defensive midfield is a safer option when factoring in potential bookings and penalties.
When in possession, Hayden continues to take up advanced positions on the pitch. He is adept at moving the ball into space and crossing it in to the box. A safe player in possession, he tends to make it a point to always stay behind the ball when one of his teammates is in possession, so as to function as a fall back option when the opposition have all the potential receivers marked. Having established a wide variety of his skills, I must mention that Hayden has also functioned as an Attacking Midfielder. In a game against Bolton, he replaced Olsson in a 4-1-4-1 formation which was unorthodox for the U-21s. He didn’t put a foot wrong and was effective.
Right Wing: Hayden has so far played in this position only once (against West Brom on 28th August, 2014). What is more surprising is that he was picked ahead of Ainsley Maitland Niles, the regular right winger, and not as an injury replacement, as Niles was benched for the game. Maitland Niles has been a very effective player for the U-21s and coach Steve Gatting has had no negative reason to bench him. It is obvious, that Hayden’s abilities are being continuously tested in order to take his game to the next level. Yet even in this unfamiliar position on the pitch, Hayden troubled the opposition defenders, acting as a target man to knock down crosses and long balls when they were played forward. When in possession, he made space for himself intelligently and crossed the ball into the dangerous six yard area of the box, even taking a shot that was well saved.
Despite his versatility in a more attacking capacity, Hayden claims to model his game on the likes of Thiago Silva and it is clear that he has been making strides in that direction. He has much to improve in his defending department in terms of dealing with one on ones, which are common in the game. But given how Arsenal have failed to adequately replace the departed Thomas Vermaelen, it is likely Arsenal fans will catch glimpses of the young Englishman throughout the campaign, considering his versatility in defence and deep midfield.
Speaking about Isaac Hayden in October 2013, Arsene Wenger said, “I like his strengths in the duels. I like his capacity of concentration and I believe as well that technically he is very focused to do well. He is committed and at half-time [in the West Brom game] I told him to behave well because he was on a yellow card and he did that well in the second half. He is maybe not a creative player but everything he does is intelligent. I like his intelligence and all these qualities together makes me choose him.”
Wenger of course, was justifying his decision to name the youngster in the squad for Arsenal’s fourth round Capital One Cup clash against Chelsea having watched him step up his game when making his full debut in the third round against West Brom. From Wenger’s words, it is clear that Hayden possesses two very key qualities, technical aside, for any youngster to make the step up to the senior squad; discipline and intelligence. Whether or not he can emulate the same at the senior level is another matter entirely. It is clear however, that Hayden has the raw attributes.
Here’s what Jeorge Bird, founder of Jeorge Bird’s Arsenal Youth (arsenalyouth.wordpress.com) and columnist for Arseblog News, told us about Isaac Hayden. Follow him on twitter @jeorgebird
Isaac is an excellent reader of the game who is adept at breaking up play. Capable of playing at centre-back or as a defensive-midfielder, his passing ability has improved tremendously in the past year. A regular for the U-21 team, he has already made his first-team debut and was on the bench for several Premier League games last season. A loan spell at a Championship or League One club is likely in the near future in order to further his development. One criticism of him is that he sometimes makes over-zealous challenges which can lead to him getting booked or sent-off.
Written by Calvin Gomez
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