Ewan Henderson: Why midfielder can benefit from Lee Johnson approach as he faces big season
Amid the signings of unknown Gambian strikers, Australian right-backs, Portuguese wingers and youngsters from the English Premier League, one of Hibs’ summer acquisitions has flown under the radar.
It is perhaps unsurprising, given Ewan Henderson arrived in January on a loan deal that would be made permanent in the summer. He doesn’t have that curiosity factor. Neither was there the potential for a ‘will he, won’t he’ return saga. It was done and dusted; signed, sealed, delivered nearly six months ago.
Fairly underwhelming loan spells, of which more later, made him something of an unknown quantity when he arrived at Easter Road, although his goal against Real Betis in the Europa League hinted at his potential.
We need to wait and see what system Lee Johnson prefers, although the manager has already indicated that he won’t be fixating on tactical set-ups, but Henderson’s versatility means he could fit into a number of different tactical approaches.
And that will suit player and team.
The 22-year-old’s primary position is as a number ten, although he did operate as something of a false nine in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Hearts at Hampden, and gave a good account of himself despite the outcome of the game.
It is surely no coincidence that Hibs fans started to see more from the midfielder as the season went on. Henderson made more appearances in one-half season for the Easter Road side than he managed in either of his previous loan spells at Ross County and Dunfermline, and nearly twice as many as he managed in total during the five years in which he made first-team appearances for Celtic.
When Henderson joined Hibs, he didn’t explicitly highlight more regular first-team football as a factor in the move but reading between the lines, it certainly played a part.
A little bit of (a) loan time
Is it slightly unkind to be judging a young player on one half-season under an inexperienced manager and interim coach? Probably.
It’s worth noting that his previous loan spells were brief: his time at the Pars comprised ten games between late March and early May and after a couple of substitute appearances and a starting berth in the 5-1 defeat by Raith Rovers, Henderson scored once and registered three assists in a run of four games as the East End Park side reached the promotion play-offs.
As with Hibs, it seemed to take him time to get up to speed.
In Dingwall, leaving aside games against Celtic in which he was ineligible, he was unable to hold down a regular starting berth and completed the full 90 minutes on just two occasions. Of his final five appearances for the Staggies, three were substitute appearances of 20 minutes or fewer. He returned to Glasgow in January.
Some sections of the support have had misgivings about Henderson’s capabilities but with Lee Johnson happy to be flexible with his formations, it could be hugely beneficial to the playmaker. So might having some sort of consistency.
Personnel, potential and a little bit of faith
It is significant that many of Hibs’ summer departures had, at some point or another during the 2021/22 campaign, filled a similar role to Henderson’s natural position. With Scott Allan, Sylvester Jasper, Chris Mueller, and Drey Wright having left Easter Road, even if we assume further attacking midfield signings will be made, Henderson has a real chance to get a consistent run of games under his belt and kickstart his senior football career.
Despite Shaun Maloney’s presence contributing to Henderson’s decision to swap Celtic Park for the Capital, a fresh start for the player might be just the tonic.
It wasn’t coincidence that his most effective performances for Hibs last season came when he was afforded more a free role in the space behind the striker.
On top of that, even allowing for the relatively small sample size of 19 games in all competitions, Henderson produced stats that should offer hope for the Easter Road support.
In terms of expected assists per 90 minutes, he measured slightly ahead of Martin Boyle and the only players out-performing him played for Celtic, Rangers, or Hearts – the top three teams in the Scottish Premiership last season.
When overall contributions to goals are considered he is – following the departure of Boyle – the club’s most potent attacking threat.
Regardless of who Henderson could be a particularly useful figure in the Hibs attack next season, and he could benefit if the new manager trusts him to do the business over an extended run of games.
Piling too much pressure on a younger player could be detrimental to both his and the team’s performances, but having more players to create is no bad thing – just look at how Hibs fell off a cliff in the final third following Boyle’s departure.
Fresh start, no sweat?
As mentioned, the presence of Maloney played a factor in Henderson choosing to come to Hibs. But with Johnson in place, he has a new manager to impress and that might be just what he needs.
The midfielder was hardly phoning it in under his former Celtic youth coach but Johnson’s relaxed approach to formations could help unleash Henderson’s full potential.
Aiden McGeady, who has been heavily linked with a move to Hibs and a reunion with his former Sunderland manager, was given something of a free role when he was brought back into the squad when Johnson took the reins at the Stadium of Light. That flexibility allowed McGeady to impact games more to the benefit of player and team.
Johnson could do likewise with Henderson: task him with patrolling the space between the midfield and the forwards, and producing the goal contributions of which the stats suggest he is more than capable.
It’s a big season for the 22-year-old but with the right players around him, and the pressure to create shared by a number of the first team, this could be the year he finally takes that significant step forward in terms of his contributions.