Celtic signed the Irish winger after a thoroughly impressive 2016/17 campaign with Aberdeen, but he’s yet to show anywhere like the form which persuaded Brendan Rodgers to part with £1.3million for his services. Craig Fowler looks at the reasons why.
He’s trying too hard
When I wrote my transfer analysis of Hayes’ move to Celtic, I looked at the player’s crossing and compared with those who were already at Celtic. Much to my surprise, Hayes ranked behind James Forrest throughout the 2016/17 season in terms of accuracy. The eye-test, and general narrative, told us that Forrest lacked a final ball, while Hayes was deadly from crosses, both from open play and set-pieces.
In a bid to rationalise these numbers, I wondered whether a higher crossing output put Hayes at a disadvantage in terms of his accuracy. After all, team-mate Niall McGinn was the only player to attempt more crosses in the 2016/17 season. Either the Aberdeen pair were being left completely alone by opponents week after week, or the team’s strategy was to get it wide and get balls into the middle, regardless of how many forwards were there to get on the end of it. Celtic, meanwhile, built their attack mainly around possession, and their wingers were far more likely to keep the ball rather than throw it into the box on a whim.
I still believe there’s something to that, because Hayes’ numbers haven’t really dropped at all. While no longer second in the league overall, he’s still on the podium for crosses per 90 minutes, averaging 6.21 per game (down only .20 from last term). By contrast, James Forrest has 2.15.
Hayes has been put into a situation where he’s not required to cross as much as he did at Aberdeen, and he’s doing it anyway. He’s trying to impose his own game into this side, and that’s maybe not what it needs, nor what he was bought for.
His crossing accuracy has been poor
The volume of crosses wouldn’t be so bad if he was posting similar numbers in terms of accuracy, but he’s not. They are way, way down on last year.
Instead of finding a team-mate 33.01 per cent of the time, Hayes has only connected with a measly 8.33 per cent of his deliveries thus far. Combine this with his enthusiasm for getting it into the mixer during his time on the park, and it’s easy to see why Celtic fans are scratching their heads and wondering if this is really the guy who stopped green and white exclusivity in the PFA Scotland Player of the Year Award nominees last term.
Overzealousness on the wing will certainly be a factor. He’ll be focusing too much on getting the cross in, rather than considering whether there are enough bodies to aim for, or spaces amid packed opposing defences in which to exploit.
Although, you would expect 8.33 per cent to improve across the course of the season, even if his form refuses to pick up.
He’s facing a different kind of opponent
While his goals and assists got him the move to Celtic, there was much more to Hayes’ game at Aberdeen. He provided a real drive from the midfield area, capable of taking the ball in deep positions, charging up the park and taking the rest of his team with him, placing the opponent on the back foot.
Opportunities have been there to do likewise at Celtic, but not nearly as often. Brendan Rodgers’ side dominate possession on an almost unimaginable scale, topping 70 per cent before this past weekend where an impressive Hibs performance brought them down to “only” 67.8 per cent across the campaign.
Hayes would often get the hearts of Aberdeen fans racing by picking up the ball 30 yards from his own goal and charging up the field. Once he got himself into full flow it was difficult to imagine any defender stopping him, as he’d knock the ball around them and simply attempt to burn them for pace.
When he gets himself into those areas now, the defenders don’t mind backing off and backing off. That’s what opponents are instructed to do against Celtic. There’s no shame in being entrenched in their own area because that’s what they expect. Hayes is having difficulty drawing the defender in and beating him down the outside, which is leading to a lot of blocked crosses as he runs out of room.
He’s (maybe) lost a yard
I don’t want to focus on this point too much because I have no metric to measure how fast Hayes was at Aberdeen compared with the present day, but the optics suggest there’s a little bit of burst, that half-yard of acceleration, which wasn’t packed up with the rest of his belongings when the 30-year-old moved to Glasgow from the north east.
The match-up with Steven Whittaker on Saturday indicated as much. Twice in the first-half, Hayes isolated the Hibs full-back - no spring chicken himself at 33 - and took him on down the flank. Each time he pulled out a patented Hayes move, slowly dribbling towards his marker before flicking the ball down the outside and turning the afterburners on. And on each occasion Whittaker matched him stride for stride and easily blocked the cross.
While he appears to have lost zero confidence in his ability to cross, despite the evidence telling him to tone it down, he’s curtailed the number of times he’s attempted to dribble past opponents. Last term he did so 4.04 times per game, this season it’s down to 1.81.
He’s adapting to a different environment
Hayes provided a spark after initially signing for Aberdeen in 2012, though it wouldn’t be well into his second season before he truly established himself as one of the club’s better players, and wouldn’t be another year or so until he became the talismanic figure we saw over the 18 months prior to his Celtic move.
Sometimes it takes time to adjust to a new environment and a different role. Hayes would have known when he signed it was going to be extremely difficult to guarantee himself a place in the first-team every week, a task which became near-impossible with the re-capture of Patrick Roberts.
He’s not only had to contend with dropping in and out of the line-up, he’s also played at a number of different positions since making his debut in July: right-wing, left-wing, left wing-back and left-back. Some players adapt to the role of reserve utility man, knowing the pressure is off them to be the match-winner, allowing them to play their game. Others strive to be recognised as one of the best at the club and push themselves to live up to their own high expectations.
Rodgers has improved the fortunes of several Celtic stars since arriving to the club, and in time you’d back him to do the same with Hayes. Whether the player will be afford that time is another matter.