It is a tough time to be a Hearts fan. The Jambos are rock bottom of the Scottish Premiership, and with the Covid-19 outbreak halting football worldwide. The decision to finish the league on points per game sees Hearts relegated to the Scottish Championship for the first time since 2014/15. Despite this there are a few positives surrounding Tynecastle. German manager Daniel Stendl arrived in Edinburgh in December 2019 and has spoken highly of a few youngsters at the club, one of them being Andy Irving. The 20-year-old local lad has impressed since forcing his way into Stendel’s plans in January.
In this tactical analysis, we will investigate what Stendel believes is so special about the youngster. This scout report will analyse all aspects of Irving’s game, discussing his strengths and his weaknesses.
Andy Irving is a Scottish 20-year-old midfielder, who currently plays for Scottish Premiership team Hearts. Irving has had two loan spells away from his parent club at Berwick Rangers in 2017/18 and Falkirk in 2018/19. His performances have earned him the nickname ‘Portobello Pirlo’ given to him by the Tynecastle faithful due to his passing range and his attendance at a local school Portobello High School. Irving has also represented Scotland at under-17 and under-19 level and had received a call up to Scotland under-21’s before the games were postponed due to coronavirus.
Role at Hearts
Irving is most often deployed on the left of a midfield two or three. As we can see from his heatmap below, Irving is a very box-to-box midfielder. He is influential in the breaking up of opposition attacks through his brilliant ability to read the game and is a major aspect in Hearts’ tactics in build-up play and into the attacking third. Irving has become a more regular starter for Hearts since January 2020 and a result of this has seen him become a regular set-piece taker.
Irving’s influence is growing at Hearts and to be entrusted with such an important role as being the team’s set-piece taker at such an early stage in his career is a reflection of how highly he is regarded by Stendel and his coaching staff. In the next part of this analysis, we will delve into the strengths and weaknesses of Irving’s game.
Range of passing
The most impressive aspect of Irving’s game is undoubtedly his passing. He has the second-most passes per 90 out of all his Hearts team-mates. What makes him stand out from the rest though is how frequently he looks to get Hearts on the front foot by playing progressive passes, as well as his influence in the final third. The graph below shows all Hearts players who have played over 1000 minutes this season and their statistics for progressive passes per 90 and final third per 90.
As we can see above Irving is clearly ahead of his teammates in terms of the statistics we are analysing. It’s one thing to stand out amongst your fellow teammates but how does Irving rate amongst all midfielders in the Scottish Premiership who have featured for 1000 or more minutes this season for the same data set.
Once again, the youngster impresses. Despite a few players from Rangers and Celtic making more final third passes than he does. Nobody makes more progressive passes than the 20-year-old. This is even more impressive when factoring in that Celtic and Rangers are clearly the best two teams in the league and have scored 153 goals between them this season, Hearts have scored just 31. The relevance to the data above is that as a team Celtic an Rangers make more progressive passes than Hearts do, so to see Irving being the most progressive passer in the league speaks volumes about his ability. Let us look at some examples from matches this season.
In this example from a match versus St. Johnstone, Irving picks up a loose ball and effortlessly switches play to the right wing, driving Hearts 30 yards up the pitch and into a promising attacking position.
Below is an image taken from the match versus Aberdeen back in December 2019, we see Irving identify a through ball that takes four Aberdeen players out of the game momentarily and gets Hearts into the penalty area.
Irving’s passing ability is a great asset to Hearts. It gives them a much needed weapon to penetrate high defensive lines as Irving can pick out a long pass in behind the defence, as shown in example one, he can also pick out a through ball if a team chooses to sit deep in a low block, as shown in examples two and three.
Breaking up of play
Irving’s ability to break up play combined with his reading of the game that enables him to pick up loose balls is something that has improved as of late. Irving himself recently acknowledged that he needed to work on his positioning off the ball. “I probably need to think about that more and look at off-the-ball stuff,” said Irving in an interview at the end of January 2020.
In the example below, we can see Irving anticipate the Rangers pass and step in to intercept before passing to a teammate to set Hearts on a counter-attack.
Another great example of Irving’s reading of the game can be seen below. He firstly is correctly positioned to intercept the ball forward by Aberdeen and after bringing the ball down gets Hearts on the front foot with a clever pass that breaks a defensive line.
As we can see in the examples in the above, Irving’s ability to read the game and break up attacks is of great benefit to Hearts and their style of play. Firstly, his reading of the game halts many counter-attacks and as such enables Hearts to play a much higher defensive line and allows them to pressure high up the pitch, which is a key aspect of Stendel’s tactics.
Irving has improved massively under Stendel in his ability to help his central defenders to win aerial duels against teams that play a large number of long balls up to a powerful striker. We can see an example of this in the third image above
Ability to play under pressure
Despite only recently graduating from his teenage years and still being in the early stages of his professional career, Irving is incredibly good at retaining possession when he is pressured by an opponent. He often used his body to shield the ball whilst turning away to safely pass the ball to a teammate in space. In the example below, we see Irving receive a poor pass and the three Rangers players apply pressure from different directions. Irving manages to shield and protect the ball and goes on to play a smart pass to teammate Toby Sibbick.
The Scots ability to hold off opponents and remain calm in high pressure situations stand him in good stead. He exhibits good strength despite only being 20-years-old, and is more than capable of coping with the pace and pressures of high level football.
Long-range goal threat
Irving tends to shoot from range, particularly when he finds himself in space centrally around the edge of the box, which we can see from the shot map below, and we will look at some examples.
Here we see Irving shooting from the central area just outside the box that we discussed earlier, unfortunately for Hearts and Irving, Kilmarnock goalkeeper Joel Pereira got down quick enough to save the shot.
Once again, we find Irving just outside the area and central and he drives his shot low to the far corner, once again a good save denies Irving a goal from a great strike.
The young Scot has a lot of positives to his game, he has great vision along with the technique the execute a variety of passes in varying situations. He has a good eye for goal and is not afraid to have a pop at goal from range. Defensively, Irving is capable of reading the game and making tackles and interceptions. Andy Irving seemingly has it all to be a great midfielder in the future.
Where he does need to improve, however, is his decision-making on the ball. Whilst Irving is tasked with providing the much needed forward thrust to Hearts’ style of play, there are occasions when the youngster attempts a difficult through pass when an easier and better option is available out wide. As we can see in the example below. Irving looks to find Steven Naismith with a pass that enters an area occupied by three Kilmarnock players. A better option would have been to play the ball in front of teammate Aidan White.
As well as attempting difficult through passes, Irving is also prone to attempting long ‘Hollywood’ passes, rather than recycling possession and waiting for a more clear-cut chance to penetrate lines. We can see this in the examples below.
Irving looks to switch play to striker Uche Ikpeazu, the pass is a difficult one to execute and results in an overhit pass. Irving could have been a little more patient and pass down the touchline to left-back Aaron Hickey, who would have been able to drive into the penalty area and exploit the initial ‘2v1’ on Aberdeen’s right-back.
Another example from the same match versus Aberdeen. Once again, Irving looks to play the difficult over the top pass when the better option would have been to pass to his team-mate near the touchline as he is in space to drive forwards and progress the attack more efficiently.
Andy Irving has the technical ability to accurately complete these audacious passes but perhaps if his decision-making were to improve, he would be more accustomed to knowing when to attempt the difficult passes and when to keep it simple.
In this analysis we have discussed Andy Irving’s game and discovered has all the makings of a fantastic midfielder in the coming years. He is an incredible talent and is highly regarded at Tynecastle. His vision and ability to ‘run the game’ at such a young age should not be underestimated, he possesses an intelligent footballing brain and reads play well. The youngster does need to improve in various areas though, but at just 20-years-old, time is on his side. With the unfortunate news that Hearts are to be relegated via PPG (points per game). It is possible Irving may consider his future at his boyhood club in search for regular action in a high-quality league, whether that is in Scotland or in England in either the Premier League or with recent links to Preston in the English Championship
It is also entirely plausible that Irving sticks it out with Hearts and becomes a leader of the next generation of players coming through the ranks at Tynecastle. Time will tell. One thing is for certain, Irving has a promising career ahead of him regardless of his choices this summer.