Isaac Hayden: Newcastle’s hidden gem

Thomas Millman
6 min readDec 28, 2019

“I have always thought he could do well, progress and be in the national team. He has the potential to play for England”

This is how Champions League winning manager Rafael Benitez described his thoughts on Isaac Hayden in March 2019, high praise indeed for a player that at that time had cast great doubt over his future by openly stating that he wished to leave the club due to personal reasons.

Look at any successful team in history or present day and they all have a central midfielder who can effectively break up the play, prevent opposition counter attacks and force teams to go wide rather than play through midfield. As much as teams need quality when in possession to get fans on the edge of their seats, they also need players to do the so called ‘dirty work’ and Hayden regularly does this job almost to perfection in a black and white shirt. Although much of his work goes unnoticed, even some of his crunching tackles have provoked as much of a reaction from the fans as scoring a goal at the Gallowgate end.

The 24-year-old defensive midfielder played a pivotal role in Benitez’s Newcastle side and has impressed yet again under Steve Bruce, proving to be a huge success on Tyneside. Hayden joined Newcastle from Arsenal for a fee in the region of £3 million at the age of 21 to supply cover during their Championship campaign and develop as a squad player but instead he quickly cemented his place in the starting eleven, racking up 28 Championship starts in his first season with the club as they won the league.

The Englishman impressed with his defensive capabilities and provided important balance in the midfield alongside Jonjo Shelvey (27) as Newcastle gained promotion at the first time of asking. Since then, he has managed to play 4513 minutes of Premier League football at the heart of the Magpies’ team, that finished 10th, 13th, and currently once again sit 10thin the league table. This number of minutes in a mid-table Premier League team that has recorded some impressive victories over these seasons should tell you that Hayden has been doing something right, and if it doesn’t then all you need to do is look at his statistics.

Hayden has averaged 1.7 interceptions /per 90 in the Premier League so far in his career, a very respectable number for a midfielder, but perhaps more impressively, he has averaged a near 70% tackle success rate despite coming up against some of the best technical midfielders in the world, playing for a team that is forced to do a lot of defending due to the style of play that both managers have adopted. With a passing accuracy of 77%, solid for a defensive midfielder, and 0.77 key passes/per 90 he is much less of a brutish player than many players with his defensive attributes and has proven he can pose an attacking threat when called upon, registering 4 Premier League assists last term (3rdhighest at the club). For a relatively young defensive midfield player who is still a couple of years from reaching his ‘prime’, these stats are particularly impressive and highlight how important he has been to Newcastle’s success — starting 6 of the side’s 7 league wins this season.

Another aspect of Hayden that has been previously overlooked is his attitude and he is what some would call a manager’s dream. Despite stating his desire to leave the club to move down south to spend time with his young family, Hayden kept his head down and if anything excelled in a black and white shirt in a situation where many other players may not have had the same mentality. Furthermore, he strikes you as a player who enjoys defending and easily understands his role in the team, something which can be a rare quality to find especially in midfielders. Whilst others steam forward to join the counter-attack, Hayden has the awareness to fill the hole in front of the defence when required, something which only really becomes apparent in his absence as Newcastle are often left exposed when he is not there to read the game.

By watching Hayden play you can see that he relishes his role at the heart of the side, frequently winning the ball high up the pitch when pressing or in transition to prevent counter attacks. Moreover, he has mastered the art of the slide tackle, whilst many players try to avoid going to ground in the modern game Hayden has made it one of his strongest attributes by fairly winning and retaining possession of the ball. As mentioned earlier, the 24-year-old fills the gap in front of the Newcastle back 5 almost to perfection by preventing the ball being easily fed into the striker. In the event of the ball reaching the striker Hayden has the awareness to quickly turn and immediately apply pressure on their first touch when possible, hassling them backwards or making one of his trademark sliding challenges.

Hayden vs Tottenham Hotspur

The above example shows Hayden closing down the opposition midfielder whilst he is receiving the ball, forcing him to take his first touch backwards and away from goal, meanwhile he is also covering the space in front of the opposition striker making it difficult for the ball to be played into him.

Hayden vs Manchester City

Once again, in this example the ball is being played into the attacking midfield player and Hayden has the awareness to close him down as he is receiving the ball whilst covering the ball into the other forward player. In this situation, Hayden won the ball and set his team up for a counter attacking opportunity.

As stated by Benitez, Hayden has a very bright future indeed and has continued to develop so far this season under Bruce, mainly providing defensive cover for the more forward thinking Jonjo Shelvey in the Newcastle midfield pairing. He has the steel and aggression that every team requires, and Newcastle would do very well to keep hold of him as he continues to develop. Arsene Wenger explained his decision to let Hayden leave Arsenal as giving the player an opportunity to develop and not allow his career to stagnate as a reserve player. Yet he was also a fan of the midfielder, describing him as “very intelligent and very good physically”, again demonstrating that Hayden has the quality to become a great player.

The Essex born Arsenal youth product is still young and of course has areas of his game that he could improve, however, from what he has shown during his career at Newcastle, he has all the necessary tools to go on to become a top quality defensive midfield player who could go on to represent his national team. As a Newcastle fan myself and having watched him develop over the last three seasons, I for one hope we can hang on to him if his desire to leave for personal reasons can be overcome. Hayden is vital to the way in which we play, and I fear he would be very difficult to replace and many of the adequate replacements would have high price tags attached to them.

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