Aaron Hickey 2019/20 – scout report
Since Andrew Robertson’s meteoric rise as one of the world’s best left-backs since joining Liverpool in 2017, the position is producing a hotbed of young talent in Scotland. Behind Robertson in the Scottish national team is Kieran Tierney who made his move to the Premier League last summer signing with Arsenal. So arguably, Scotland’s two best players both play in left-back. Adding to this headache is the emergence of an exciting young left-back, Aaron Hickey.
The 17-year-old left-back started in the academy ranks with Hearts. Having impressed in the youth setup, Celtic signed the left-back. Having spent a few years in Celtics academy, Hickey then forced a move back to his boyhood club Hearts in 2018. Since making his move back, the 17-year-old has established himself as a regular in the first team and with each passing appearance, Hickey improves, impresses and excites the Jam Tarts faithful.
Hickey has stood up and been the shinning light amidst Heart’s relegation fight this season. His consistent performances have sparked the interest of some Premier League clubs, as Hickey looks to follow in the same trajectory as Robertson and Tierney. This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Aaron Hickey’s breakout season at Hearts. Showing how the young left-back has the attributes of an exciting full-back.
The first fundamental task at being a full-back is they must excel defensively. Hickey certainly has a good foundation in this area. The young left-back may appear slight but he is tenacious in the tackle being quite active defensively where the Scottish defender faces around 6.9 defensive duels per 90 mins winning 61% of those duels.
While predominately playing at left-back this season, Hickey has shown his versatility by featuring at right-back as well as covering as a centre-back in a back three. What is impressive is that his performance level does not drop from this change in positions and that is a huge testament to his mature character at only 17.
What is striking about the young Hearts full-back is his athleticism namely his pace and his ability to cover a lot of ground which he used to great effect against league leaders Celtic in December. With the quality, Celtic have they can exploit a defence like, Hearts, as shown below. However, Hickey does tremendously well to make up the ground and cover Odsonne Édouard. Unfortunately, the ball breaks to Oliver Ntcham who tucks the ball away. Even though the move ended in a goal against Hearts, Hickey’s desire to get back and cover shows he had the right mentality and application to defend.
Another area that Hickey impresses, despite being only 17, is that he reads the game very well and has great anticipation. The Scottish full-back is a proactive defender which is illustrated in his 4.9 interceptions per 90 minutes. Acquiring this skill so early in his development is really impressive, this is a skill that most players tend to master later on in their careers.
With such great anticipation, the young defender has a great sense of where the danger is and so he prevents certain goals as a result. A great example of Hickey’s great anticipation preventing a certain goal was late in the game against Celtic. The 17-year-old recognises the danger and so he leaves his marker and tucks in marking Édouard. The timing of his sliding challenge is perfect as he blocks the Celtic strikers shot from hitting the back of the net from six yards out.
Passing and distribution
In recent years the role of the full-back has increasingly become more important in terms of the build-up play as teams look to play out from the back. Also, a full-back is tasked with being more creative, where they are being asked to progress the ball into the final third from deep. Hearts manager Daniel Stendel’s tactics encourage his team to play out from the back and his full-backs are key in terms of ball progression. Stendel requires his full-backs to be composed and be able to play out of tight situations to progress the ball forward. To facilitate his need, as there was no right-back in the squad with these attributes, he converted centre-midfielder Sean Clare into a right-back.
Hickey also fits the criteria perfectly for a full-back under Stendel’s system as the young Scotsman played as a central midfielder in the Hearts academy before being deployed as a left-back. As a result, the Hearts full-back looks to receive the ball, is composed in possession and is fantastic at managing the ball in tight situations. He fits the role magnificently with the skills he learned playing as a central midfielder.
When the 17-year-old receives the ball, his first option is always trying to progress the ball forward. He tends to play short forward passes, but this seems to be his secondary option he will first look to exploit, defensive disorganisation by playing a long pass if the opportunity arises where overall he is a relatively good decision-maker. He does not force any passes if they are not on but he has the passing range when the chance presents itself to open up an opponent’s defence in an instant.
The young full-back attempts around 7.5 progressive actions (passes/runs) per 90 minutes which is not overly high but Hearts normally operate with a lone striker and overall the forward movement is limited from the Jambos. What is most striking though is Hickey completes 75% of his passes into the final third showing his great passing range and decision making, knowing when to play short and when to play the ball long from deep. His decision making and passing range are summed up perfectly when Hearts played rivals Hibernian in the Edinburgh derby at the start of March. Hickey had the vision to see that Hibernian’s defence was disorganised and had the passing range to hit a sublime through ball to the willing runner in behind Conor Washington, setting him up to score past the Hibs keeper.
You might be thinking apart from those moments of brilliance what makes the young full-back stand out. Well, the Scottish left-back is unique as he is ambipedal; it is hard to distinguish if he has a stronger foot as he is a natural when passing with either foot. Hickey adds an interesting element to his passing arsenal, he is able to switch from his left to his right foot thus this changes the angle of his body which opens up the entire right side of the pitch.
The Hearts full-back being two-footed opens up the option of switching the point of attack for his team by being able to hit a cross-field ball. It also poses a problem for the opposition winger trying to press Hickey, if they press him from the inside he can use his left foot to progress the ball forward down the line. Contrastingly if the opposition press him aggressively from the outside on the left he can shift the ball to his right foot to progress the ball through passing options on the right side of the pitch and while also changing the point of attack, which can be seen to great effect below.
In this analysis, we have established that Hickey has a solid base in terms of his defensive work when his team is out of possession. When Hearts regain the ball, the full-backs are encouraged to get forward and attack the opposition. The young Scotsman obliges and is eager to get forward which is evident as he has around 6.7 offensive duels per 90 minutes well above the average in his position (5.3 offensive duels per 90 minutes).
Hickey uses his athleticism as highlighted earlier in this analysis, but in this instance, it is to get into dangerous attacking positions. However the young full-back is normally left frustrated as his teammates are either not able to retain the ball and so the attack is broken down or they choose not to play the ball out to him, the latter situation is shown below against Aberdeen as Hickey makes a good run from out to in but Andy Irving decides not to play him in behind and so the opportunity is lost.
When the 17-year-old does receive the ball in a 1v1 situation with an opposition defender he is unpredictable because he can use either foot, as I mentioned earlier. The opposition defender has to decide whether to show the Hearts full-back down the line or show him inside making it difficult to stop him. This causes indecision in the opposition defenders’ mind giving Hickey space and time to cross a dangerous ball into the box. In this instance below, Shane Logan the Aberdeen right-back blocks off Hickey’s route down the line. He quickly shifts the ball to his right foot inside and plays a cross into the free Oliver Božanić who heads narrowly wide.
Overall the young full-back gets himself into dangerous attacking positions, he has contributed to one goal and one assist in his first full season as a 17-year-old which is impressive and when analysing a player so young you sometimes lose sight of this context.
Areas of improvement
Hickey is certainly a promising young talent but he needs to improve in some areas of his game. The young full-back loves to get forward as I mentioned in the previous point. However, sometimes he can be a bit too gung ho in this aspect and can get caught too far up the pitch. Hickey, therefore, is not able to get back and make an effective defensive recovery. This can be of real detriment to his team leaving his side essentially a man down in defence.
In the game against Aberdeen, Hearts nearly dropped two points from Hickey’s over-exuberance to attack as he was caught too far up the pitch. Aberdeen broke through Niall McGinn and left-winger Bruce Anderson is completely free in the box Irving sprinted back to cover Hickey’s man but the Aberdeen winger was too far ahead. Luckily for Hearts and Hickey McGinn’s pass went over the head of Anderson. The young full-back just needs to polish this area of his game, being more aware and not over committing to attack.
Another area that the young full-back should look to improve on is in his 1v1 defending. Hickey when facing the opposition winger tends not to overcommit which is good but he sometimes does not engage the winger at all. This gives the winger space to cross dangerous balls into the box, as shown in the game against Hibernian below. The Hearts defender should improve on looking to press onto and then engage the winger and work on timing his tackle to stop him crossing the ball into the area.
Aaron Hickey is a very promising young talent. Although only 17-years-old, he has shown a maturity and composure that is way beyond his years. Getting exposure at first-team level at Hearts this season has been a major contributor to the young Scotsman’s accelerated development. The young left-back has played 30 times in the first team gaining valuable experience, which he has taken in his stride where he continues to improve upon each performance.
Hickey has sparked the interest of many clubs, notably from the Premier League and rightfully so, but the young 17-year-old must either stay with Hearts or choose a team that will continue to expose him to first-team football. The young full-back is on the right road to success but his next move may be his most vital decision.