Defensive reinforcement, impressive passing, Craig Halkett comparisons: What Hearts are getting in Frankie Kent
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For the majority of the 2021/22 campaign, the Tynecastle side were able to implement a highly-functioning trio of John Souttar, Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley; two Scottish internationals and someone, in Halkett, who received a call up by national team boss Steve Clarke during the campaign for his performances.
They were all comfortable on the ball, with Souttar noted for his accurate long-range passing and Kingsley for charging down the channel much in the same way he would at left-back to join the attack. All three were strong in the air, Halkett being particularly dominant, and there was enough pace between them to play with a high line.
There was strength in depth with Toby Sibbick, Taylor Moore and Alex Cochrane as back-up options should any of the above get injured, which they had a tendency to do as the season wore on. While the full-back positions held similar reliability with Michael Smith and the aforementioned Cochrane both strong defensive players at wing-back.
Besides, if all else failed, there was Player of the Year winner Craig Gordon as added insurance behind them.
Unfortunately for Hearts and ex-manager Robbie Neilson, things change incredibly quickly in football and, fewer than 12 months on, Hearts found the defensive unit to be one of the team’s biggest weaknesses. Souttar left, Halkett and Gordon got injured, and Kingsley’s form nosedived. Set-pieces were particularly porous. The team could no long be counted on to win the aerial battle when balls were launched into the penalty area. Hearts conceded 26 goals in their final 15 games of the league season with only four victories and one clean sheet. The run ultimately cost them a guaranteed spot in European group stages for the second season in a row, and Neilson his job.
It was an area which demanded attention this summer. Halkett will return from his ACL tear, but that won’t be until late September at the earliest and there’s no telling yet what effects the devastating injury may have had on the 28-year-old. Sibbick and Kye Rowles were slotted to start the opening game against St Johnstone if no reinforcements were brought in. Seeing as that pairing wasn’t even trusted to finish the last league campaign, with Bournemouth loanee James Hill preferred alongside Rowles for the final match against Hibs, it didn’t bode well for an improvement in front of Gordon’s deputy and long-term successor Zander Clark.
Enter Frankie Kent. The 27-year-old central defender joined Hearts on Monday from Peterborough United on a three-year deal after a six-figure bid was accepted for the Englishman by the League One club.
With the management team having moved Hearts away from a predominantly three-at-the-back system into a back-four at the conclusion of last term, the expectation on Kent will be that he beats out either Sibbick or Rowles (likely the former) to be named in the starting XI when the team travels to McDiarmid Park a week on Saturday.
Hearts were a little too nice in defence last term. Sibbick and Rowles, they can do some good work on the football, they each bring something to the table defensively, but neither can be trusted to regularly dominate their opponent physically, especially Rowles. That’s why Halkett’s absence is so keenly felt.
So is Frankie Kent another version of Craig Halkett? Mmmmmm… not exactly.
In the few matches he played last season, the former Livingston captain was literally the most aerial dominant player, statistically speaking, in the cinch Premiership. He typically averages a 75 per cent success rate from aerial duels. Kent’s average last term was 61 per cent. It’s better than Rowles (56) but roughly the same as both Sibbick and Kingsley (62).
He does, however, attack the ball in the air more than his new team-mates (again, except for Halkett) and generally shows proaction by stepping out to deal with danger rather than waiting for it to come to him.
He’s got a slender body for his 6ft 2in frame, but it enables him to possess decent agility and mobility. It allows him to have good covering depth to go along with that aggressiveness. He moves well on the turn and certainly can’t be confused for a lumbering centre-back.
Watching him in action, the aspect of his game which impresses the most is his passing. He moves the ball with real crisp confidence, enthusiastically playing it through the lines. He doesn’t tend to settle for lumps up the park; he wants to find an attacker 20-25 yards further forward with his back to goal and get it into his feet. He was successful with 74.22 per cent of his forward passes last term and 54.94 of his long passes. In both instances, there were only two players who rated better in the 2022/23 Scottish top flight who didn’t play for either Celtic or Rangers, whose centre-backs naturally have it easier with a lot more time on the ball.
His slighty-better-than-average aerial prowess may cause concern for supporters who want someone in a Halkett mould to give the back line its old dominance, but the problem for a club like Hearts is that it’s difficult to find such players who also have enough comfort on the ball not be routinely exposed on a team which also likes to dominate the football.
Kent’s passing abilities should make him an easy fit for the management’s preferred way of playing, where everyone is expected to be confident and aggressive in moving the ball up the park. He won’t head everything away – fans will have to wait for Halkett’s return in that regard – but he’ll attack enough that there is certainly a possibility for this defence to be a bit meaner and more balanced this forthcoming campaign.