Around eleven months ago when the Premier League season wrapped up, Everton held their end of season dinner in Liverpool. Saving the main accolade until last, the evening culminated in John Heitinga receiving the Everton player of the year award and few could dispute the decision after a string of impressive performances in 2011-12.
Supporters were able to discuss the merits of their preferred centre back pairing as three players, each of them in fine form, competed for two central defensive spots. Fast-forward through last season to the present day and the situation is much changed. To say Heitinga endured a troubled campaign is a serious understatement; the defender rapidly became a shadow of his best, leaving Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin to establish themselves as first choice.
Starting with the basic statistics, a clear pattern emerges and continues throughout the analysis; Heitinga fell below the standards set by his teammates. In terms of goals against, Distin posted the best individual record; Everton conceded exactly a goal a game with the Frenchman starting. Jagielka found himself close behind (1.06), but the Toffees conceded a disappointing 25 in the 17 matches featuring Heitinga from the start.
The first choice duo returned ten clean sheets each, numbers comfortably above the three shut outs delivered by Heitinga. Making just 17 starts, easily the lowest of his Everton career, the lack of matches stemmed from the consistently poor form shown on these rare starts.
Analysis of the main defensive aspects from the previous season simply highlights the fall from grace experienced by Heitinga. Before continuing, it is worth noting the relevance / irrelevance of certain figures. Results such as number of tackles are difficult to compare, as the most used player is almost certain to attempt more tackles; this is proven correct in most cases.
However, the areas open to interpretation are the rates and percentages of the defenders. Independent of minutes played, success rates and / or accuracy merely display the ability of said player in a particular field.
Unfortunately, for Heitinga, the relevant figures continue to outline the drastic transformation from fan favourite to black sheep. The player of the year campaign saw a tackle success rate of 75% and no defensive errors in 29 starts; this season saw a tackle success rate of 63.16% and 3 defensive errors in just 17 starts.
Unlike Heitinga, club captain Jagielka impressed in 2012-13, but the England international only managed a rather modest 68.25% tackle success rate. As his defensive partners languished in the 60% range, Distin outlined his strength in this department via an 80.39% success rate from 51 tackles.
The tallest of the three defenders, Distin led the way on Aerial 50-50s with a 71% win rate. Further cementing his nightmare season, Heitinga fared worst in this category (55%) and notched the lowest success rate for Ground 50-50s (59%); his defensive counterparts returning win percentages of 74% and 77% respectively.
Jagielka returned an impressive 92 interceptions, yet also committed the most defensive errors (4) and saw the highest number of opposing players dribble past him (9). Although, in truth, these three outcomes are unsurprising since the player recording them is the one boasting the most playing time, this supports the relevance point mentioned earlier.
Developing into a recurring theme, not even the woes of Jagielka on the error front could save Heitinga; the former made more errors, but Heitinga still made errors at a faster rate. The Heitinga tally of three errors at a rate of one every 534 minutes pales in comparison to a single Distin error in 2,837 minutes of football.
Moving onto possession and passing categories, the two areas that Heitinga excels in, there is little difference between the three central defenders especially within the passing statistics.
Heitinga lost possession just once in 1,602 minutes last season, one of the few areas where the Dutchman outperformed his fellow central defenders; the added assurance is possession is the one of the strongest facets of his game and one of the few traits retained, even when his form tailed off.
Jagielka impressed at regaining possession, the defensive total of 104 and the middle third return of 68 dwarfed the numbers of Distin and Heitinga. The England man winning possession back once every 18 minutes in comparison to Distin (26) and Heitinga (36).
The final category is passing and, while there is a case for defenders concentrating solely on the art of defending, this particular attribute is of great importance in the modern game. Composure in possession is vital as the game evolves and Roberto Martinez is sure to implement a more studied approach on the ball.
As strong as they are defensively, the biggest shortcoming of Distin and Jagielka is their lack of composure and tendency to revert to safety-first long ball football. Heitinga recorded the best passing accuracy (83%) and the best defensive zone accuracy (98%), allied to a lower passes per minute ratio, these statistics point to a considered approach in possession.
Nevertheless, while the technical side of the game remains Heitinga’s forte, the harsh reality is that his defensive counterparts outperformed him with ease in 2012-13. Likewise, firmly established as the number one defensive pairing at Everton, Distin and Jagielka will look to continue their largely impressive partnership under the stewardship of the new manager.
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