• Andy

We Need to Talk About Jeff: The Numbers Behind Newcastle United's 'Ghost' Midfielder

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

After no agreement could be reached to extend his contract with Burnley, following a £10.5 million transfer from Derby in 2016, the rumours in the summer suggested that both AC Milan and Roma were interested in signing Jeff Hendrick when he became a free agent. However, Serie A's loss was Newcastle's gain (?) as the Irish international moved to the North East.

September 12th 2020 saw the birth of a new meme sensation as Jeff Hendrick took on the form of a goat, Jesus Christ and everything in between. As Newcastle fans celebrated a win away at West Ham, the tongue-in-cheek reactions to our new midfielder's debut performance were all over social media.

Hendrick started his Newcastle career with one goal and one assist and the generally underwhelming reaction from fans to his free transfer move from Burnley suddenly felt a little misguided. However, nine games later, 'underwhelming' doesn't begin to describe the midfielder's performances.

"You have to wonder what has happened to him. He was universally described as 'Mr consistent', 'solid 7 out of 10 every week', 'reliable', etc. but he just looks like a passenger"

Statistics aren't everyone's thing and sometimes it is easy to become lost in the world of details and numbers and forget the wider picture. After all, Newcastle won that game and he scored one and assisted the other. However, a closer look at his numbers that day shows a poor performance in several key areas of a midfielder's role.

He had 37 touches of the ball - the lowest number of all outfield players completing the 90 minutes. He completed 21 passes - significantly less than fellow midfielders Hayden (39) and Shelvey (37). He carried the ball 21 times - only Lascelles carried fewer times out of all outfield players completing the 90 minutes. Finally, he made 0 tackles - Hayden and Shelvey combined for 5 and even Saint-Maximin and Joelinton made 1 each.

"Said when we signed him that I wasn't sure what he did but he seemed to start ok. Clearly my initial comments are sounding vindicated!"

Ultimately, it is the result that matters and his main two contributions won Newcastle the three points. However, these numbers were the start of a trend that, without a further goal or assist since that day, has led to many fans asking, "What is the point in Jeff Hendrick?"

"It really is like playing with ten men. I was fixated watching his lack of commitment. Jogged back, never put a tackle in, never showed for the ball, complete ghost!"

Although some of his appearances have been in a wider midfield role, he has predominantly featured in central midfield so far. Of the five Newcastle players who I think could operate in a central midfield role, Hendrick has easily played the most in the Premier League this season:

Minutes played:

Hendrick - 760

Shelvey - 521

Hayden - 506

Almirón - 485

Longstaff - 376

"I've watched him a few times and by that I mean just him as the game goes on and he doesn't want the ball, he puts himself in positions where he won't get it but he's looking busy, far too many times he's just jogging round aimlessly."

I decided to look at what I consider to be the basic four key statistics for a central midfield player - touches of the ball; completed passes; carries and tackles. Initially I compared the five Newcastle players. However, I then decided to include three additional players, to provide a wider reference point beyond Newcastle.

I included two players who are regularly brought up by disgruntled Newcastle fans in their England selection complaints - Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice.

I also included Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa as, although the £30m Fulham midfielder is outside of Newcastle's normal spending limit, he is the sort of player who would vastly improve Newcastle's strength in this position.

Finally, in case Hendrick's numbers were skewed by an underperforming (statistically, if not in terms of points) Newcastle side, I included statistics from two of his previous seasons. These were 2019/20, when Burnley finished 10th, and 2017/18, when Burnley finished 7th.

Touches of the ball per 90 mins:

Anguissa - 80

Phillips - 79

Shelvey - 61

Rice - 59

Almirón - 49

Longstaff - 47

Hayden - 45

20/21 Hendrick - 41

17/18 Hendrick - 39

19/20 Hendrick - 36

Completed passes per 90 mins:

Anguissa - 57

Phillips - 55

Rice - 43

Shelvey - 37

Hayden - 31

Longstaff - 31

Almirón - 29

20/21 Hendrick - 27

17/18 Hendrick - 24

19/20 Hendrick - 20

Number of carries per 90 mins:

Anguissa - 59

Phillips - 49

Rice - 40

Almirón - 34

Shelvey - 34

17/18 Hendrick - 28

Hayden - 25

Longstaff - 24

19/20 Hendrick - 24

20/21 Hendrick - 24

Tackles per 90 mins:

Anguissa - 3.85

Phillips - 3.29

Almirón - 3.15

Rice - 2.44

Shelvey - 2.25

Hayden - 1.96

Longstaff - 1.68

19/20 Hendrick - 0.84

17/18 Hendrick - 0.46

20/21 Hendrick - 0.36

"I recommend anyone to watch him in isolation for about 10 minutes in a game. You’ll be astonished at the lengths he’ll go to just to avoid any meaningful action."

The numbers are hard to ignore. The meaningful and significant contributions of his debut goal and assist perhaps masked an otherwise ineffective performance but it is hard to argue that a player isn't worthy of selection after those two moments.

However, since then and without any further goals or assists, the underlying numbers back up the social media commentary that it is difficult to see what he brings to the Newcastle team.

No Newcastle midfielder is the complete package like Anguissa or Phillips but the other options all possess at least one redeeming quality, sufficient enough to forgive their weaknesses. Whether it the endless running and pressing of Almirón, the occasional creativity from Shelvey, the slide tackle of Hayden or the potential of Longstaff, there is something there in all of them. It is hard to see what that something is with Hendrick.

His goal against West Ham is his only shot on target this season. He has made a total of three tackles and has not stopped a player dribbling past him once - being dribbled past eleven times. He has not played a single through ball, has a crossing accuracy of 0% and a shooting accuracy of 14%.

Perhaps being available for selection has been his biggest quality but it is difficult to argue that he is the best option available for any of the midfield roles. Factor in the numbers shown above and a case for Hendrick keeping his place in the starting eleven simply does not add up.

Without that debut goal and assist, there would be little tangible evidence that he'd pulled on the black and white more than any other midfield player so far this season. The reasons for signing him - free transfer with Premier League experience - are obvious for a club stuck in 'bare minimum mode' but the reasons for continuing to play him are far from clear.


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