Seen by many supporters to have been Everton’s last marquee signing, Johnny Heitinga has continually struggled to establish himself on the pitch in his more natural position of centre-back. Brought in to help fill the void left by Joleon Lescott, more often that not he has found himself required to fill in at right-back, or as a defensive midfielder at Everton, with David Moyes preferring to use Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin at the back.
The Dutchman now fiercely divides opinion at Goodison Park. Some supporters seem unable to fathom how he so rarely starts in central defence, relishing his hard-man aura, coupled with his unerring desire to whole-heartedly dive in to most challenges. For other supporters, these exact reasons frustrate them. Some see this side of his game as overly reckless and fear he is a yellow card waiting to happen. They view Heitinga as a hot-headed liability at the back who loses his man far too easily.
With Sylvain Distin’s recent injury, Everton’s World Cup finalist has had another run in central defence alongside current captain, Phil Jagielka. This duo has rarely been paired together so it seems an appropriate time to chart Heitinga’s progress and see if he trumps the other two contenders vying to start at the back.
On viewing these stats, the simple answer is no. Whilst Heitinga does manage to better his rivals in a few categories, where he does not, he falls considerably behind, as in the case of his success rate in 50-50 duels. He only registers just over 50% in the air and on the ground for these pivotal exchanges that can often dictate the dynamics of a match. In contrast, Distin and Jagielka impressively pass 70% for both.
Interceptions generally indicate a player’s ability to read the game and, although he has appeared less, Heitinga is still considerably behind his team-mates, 29 and 27 to 12. This perhaps amplifies the perception that he dives in far too easily, which is also backed up in these statistics by his foul count, despite the fewer number of minutes he has been on the pitch.
Of course there are benefits of having the Dutchman. When tackling he wins the ball more often that Distin and Jagielka and his versatility that enables him to often perform in midfield comes with a naturally superior passing ability. He has also only seen six goals shipped in the seven games he has featured in, although that seems to stem from him being injured or omitted from the team for much of Everton’s arduous fixture list in October.
The most revealing factor from these statistics is that, despite many perceptions that his form has not matched up to what is was a few years back (before injury in 2009), Phil Jagielka is undoubtedly Everton’s top performer at centre-back. Along with a few more clean sheets, his tackle percentage is the only statistical element needing improving over the coming weeks.
Jagielka’s undoubted supremacy leaves Heitinga challenging Distin for the second centre-back jersey. Whilst the Dutchman’s obvious pedigree of nearly 75 caps for Holland and a World Cup runners-up medal versus an uncapped veteran is hard to ignore, Distin has been a pillar of consistency for the Toffees over the past 18 months. During that period few have performed better in Everton colours.
Distin’s extra height and natural left foot have been two obvious factors that fans presume keep David Moyes favouring the Frenchman. Whilst these attributes are handy, it may also be the case that both Jagielka and Heitinga are simply too similar to continually co-exist at the back for Everton.
Central defence is all about partnerships. Changes in personnel disrupt rhythm and what generally solidifies a partnership is chemistry and understanding formed over time. Additionally, the best combinations are often those with differing primary facets in their games. With Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at Manchester United, Vidic is mainly the man trying to contest and win the ball, while Ferdinand shores things up behind, reading the game and playing out from the back. The same was with Ricardo Carvalho and John Terry, so long viewed as one of the game’s premier defensive duos at Chelsea. Carvalho was more often the destroyer, and John Terry mopped up behind him.
Phil Jagielka has the ability to carry out both of these duties, but he is at his best in the more confrontational role, with Distin dropping behind him to sweep up. Johnny Heitinga simply has to be the aggressor in a partnership and when playing in tandem with Jagielka, this detracts from the England man’s game. Whilst it works well for Heitinga with Distin, and those two have enjoyed relative success in their few outings together, Moyes is unlikely to leave out one of his most valuable commodities. It is a case of Jagielka and whoever works best with him.
Therefore it seems sooner rather than later, Everton will revert to their more familiar pairing of Distin and Jagielka. It may even be this weekend at Arsenal, as injuries could see Heitinga shuffled into midfield. Whilst the Dutch international is certainly a fine player, whose versatility fits in well with the slender squad at Everton, with such renowned financial frailties, there must be ongoing discussions regarding his future at the club. Unfortunately, he is simply not the right fit for this current Everton line-up in central defence and is an asset the Toffees cannot afford to keep on the periphery of things. If an offer comes in during the January transfer window, it would surely be hard to ignore.
If Heitinga does continue to be given time at the back with Distin sidelined through injury, he still has time to sway opinion and stake a claim for a starting berth. Given more time, perhaps he and Jagielka can further adapt their games to suit each other better. However, at this current moment and for the past year or so, at centre-back he seems very much Everton’s third best option.