Celtic’s signing of Jonny Hayes in 2017 was viewed as much an act of pilfering talent from their closest rivals as it was a strengthening their own squad. The Irishman had excelled during his five seasons with Aberdeen but few expected him to repeat that form in Glasgow.
Primarily, the concern around the transfer was based on the tactical differences between the two teams. While Derek McInnes’ Dons were – and to an extent still are – reliant on fast, tricky wingers who could win out in one-on-one situations and provide good crosses for tall strikers, Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic were more about progressing more gradually into the final third to work quality scoring chances.
Hayes failed to thrive in this different environment. An injury midway through his first term at Parkhead didn’t help, but he simply wasn’t a natural fit for the approach taken by his manager. Whenever he did make the starting line-up, it was usually to fill in as a makeshift left-back. However, his situation has dramatically improved since Neil Lennon was appointed on an interim basis two months ago.
At 31 years of age, the Irishman is making a comeback. Having started Celtic’s last two fixtures, against his old club Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup and against Hibernian in the league, he is starting to show the sort of form that led him to top the Scottish Premiership’s assist charts in 2016/17.
In an interview with The Herald, Lennon spoke of his pleasure at the player’s upturn.
“I’ve been delighted with Jonny Hayes,” he said. “He gives us a different dimension to the way we play. He can play on both wings, like [James] Forrest, and that causes defences a lot of problems. I just feel his quality is getting better.”
It should be no real surprise to hear Celtic’s interim boss gush over Hayes’ abilities as during his first spell in charge, Lennon placed great emphasis on dynamic wing play.
He often utilised two deep-lying central midfielders to enable both full-backs to push forward and create overloads and rotations with the wingers. These combinations looked to get a wide man into good positions to fire crosses across the six-yard box or cut back for the forwards to finish.
This style of play was also seen while he was in charge of Hibs. While at Easter Road he made good use of attacking full-backs and pure dribblers, such as Martin Boyle and Daryl Horgan, attacking inward from the flanks.
And, while Lennon hasn’t needed to completely overhaul the tactics of a winning team since returning to Celtic, there has been a slight change in the way the reigning champions attack under his auspices. In the seven league games since he returned they have averaged 26.1 crosses per 90 minutes; for context, their average crosses for this season as a whole is 20.7.
Evidently, there is now a greater need for effective wide men at Parkhead. This development is what has allowed Hayes not only to force his way back into the line-up, but to showcase the qualities that made him one of the league’s most productive attacking players not so long ago.
Not every fan agrees with his selection ahead of Scott Sinclair, who was integral to the club during the Rodgers era. But, considering the two players are completely different, the Englishman’s absence is perhaps an indication of what is to come.
Hayes is a natural left-footer who stays close to the touchline, drives at his man and looks to get around the opposition. Sinclair prefers to drift inside, combine with his teammates and play through the opposition.
In a team increasingly focused on attacking from wide, it makes a great deal of sense that the former would get the nod over the latter.
Speaking to The Scotsman recently, Hayes discussed the slight change since Lennon took charge. “One of the things I have to give our manager credit for is that he’s given us a little more freedom [than Brendan Rodgers],” he said. “You still need to go out and produce, of course; you can’t keep losing the ball, but he encourages you to make things happen.”
And he is making things happen. Since the managerial change, he has averaged 10.7 dribbles and 11 crosses per 90 minutes in all competitions. In both categories he is up on his season averages (7.7 dribbles and 7.6 crosses) and, on top of that, his success percentages for both dribbling and crossing have increased.
It may have taken 18 months, but Hayes is finally playing for a Celtic manager who doesn’t just appreciate but makes full use of, his specific talents.
With his pace, dribbling skill and ability to hit dangerous areas in the penalty box with accurate crosses, he is exactly the type of winger Lennon needs.