Why Hickey is important to Frank’s Brentford plans
Brentford have agreed a deal with Bologna to sign young left-back Aaron Hickey.
The 20-year-old has won plenty of plaudits during his two seasons with the Serie A club after opting to move abroad at 18, swapping Scottish outfit Hearts for northern Italy in a £1.5m deal.
It has proven to be a fruitful move for Hickey, with Brentford now set to splash out at least £14m on the Scotland international and potentially more with add-ons.
But with Hickey mostly operating as a left-sided wing-back at Bologna, it begs the question as to why Brentford have added another left-sided player when Rico Henry performed so well last season.
West London Sport looks at why the Bees have opted to add Hickey to their squad…
Similar to Henry
There are some obvious similarities in the way both Hickey and Henry play, especially in their ability to progress up the pitch with the ball at their feet.
Advancing with the ball is one of the most important skills a modern wing-back can have. It’s something Henry was excellent at for Brentford last season and Hickey is equally comfortable in doing.
According to data from FBref, Henry completed the highest number of carries into the final third for Brentford last season, at 37. Hickey, meanwhile, ranked third among Bologna’s squad for the same statistic, with 45.
Neither are near the top for this metric when compared with other full-backs across Europe’s top five leagues, but context is important. Both played for bottom-half teams and were among the most progressive players with the ball at their feet in their respective squads.
For Brentford, who are competing against teams with far more financial muscle and who can dominate possession, this is absolutely vital. It provides an outlet to stop the team from becoming too pinned back while also opening up an opportunity for quick counter-attacks too.
Hickey has excellent technical ability. His first touch and instinctive skill means he can work his way out of tight spaces, often using fancy flicks, when opposition players are pressing him.
And like Henry, his energy and stamina allow him to get up and down the wing. He is comfortable pressing the opposition too – something Bees boss Thomas Frank encourages from his players.
Both players have a keen eye for goal, with Hickey’s five league goals last season enough to rank him in the 94th percentile for non-penalty goals when compared with other full-backs across Europe’s top five leagues. For comparison, Henry was in the 84th percentile.
Henry’s opposite wing-back for much of the season, Sergi Canos, was similarly effective in getting the ball up the pitch and likewise pressed really well. But he was often guilty of giving possession back to the opposition too easily, completing just 60.4% of his passes last season.
Hickey, however, is far better when it comes to finding a team-mate. His versatility also means he is not necessarily in direct competition with Henry for a first-team place and could also help to alleviate some of the pressure on Canos.
As a left-footed player, Hickey is naturally best suited to playing on the left-hand side. It allows him to more easily drive forward in wide positions using his favoured foot.
But there were times last season when he also featured on the right, allowing team-mate Mitchell Dijks to play in his favoured left wing-back position.
Hickey is comfortable using his right foot, putting in a fantastic cross for Marko Arnautovic to open the scoring in a 1-1 draw with Salernitana using his weaker foot, and played well when used as a right-sided wing-back on occasions during the last campaign.
Moreover, his experience of playing in a back four also leans itself towards Frank’s flexibility in his choice of system. The signing of Hickey signals a continuation of the largely preferred 3-5-2 but he can also be used in a 4-3-3.
Whether or not Frank sees Hickey as a permanent replacement for Canos at right wing-back or more as someone who will fill in on both sides remains to be seen. But while Hickey is more than comfortable operating on the right, he is at his best on the opposite flank.
That’s because playing on the right can restrict his ability to drive down the outside of opposition full-backs and wingers, instead preferring to come inside on his stronger left foot.
But at 20, Hickey has plenty of time to adjust to playing on the right more regularly if that is where his future lies. And his age also affords him the time to improve on the other areas of game which still need work.
Plenty of time to improve
Despite his ability to drive forward with the ball, he was not the most creative player when it came to setting up his team-mates at Bologna. In fact, that cross for Arnautovic against Salernitana was his only assist of the Serie A season.
His expected assists figure, as provided by FBref, of just 0.04 per 90 minutes was only enough to rank him in the 18th percentile of full-backs across Europe’s top five divisions. And the number of actions from Hickey which led to a Bologna shot (e.g. a pass, dribble, foul won etc.) of just 1.24 per 90 ranks him in the 19th percentile.
Simply put, Hickey is not directly creating a lot of chances himself. For all Canos’ shortcomings, he was at least a creative threat for Brentford last season.
What the stats do not show, however, is that his positivity on the ball, like Henry – who was also not a prolific chance creator last season – had a hugely positive impact on his team’s attacking play.
Hickey has a tendency to prefer short passes over the more ambitious long balls, and he is not a particularly prolific crosser. He ranked at the bottom for progressive passes among full-backs in Europe’s top five leagues last season, placing in only the first percentile for that metric. Though his tendency to carry the ball forward, instead of passing it, does help to provide some context.
His habit of scoring goals also helps to ensure he makes a valuable contribution in attack despite some of his weaknesses.
Naturally, Hickey is going to need some time to adapt to the Premier League. Serie A is home to some excellent players and teams but is not comparable to the strength of the league he is expected to join and, on the whole, he will be facing better quality opposition than he did last season.
Defensively, he showed a good understanding of the position he needed to be in and excelled at blocking crosses, though there is probably room for him to grow more aggressive as a defender.
He was not someone who regularly stepped up to make interceptions and win the ball, ranking in the ninth percentile compared with other full-backs in Europe’s top five leagues for interceptions, compared with the 58th percentile for Henry. Aerially, he is not strong either.
It’s reasonable to expect that he will have to do more defending next season in the Premier League too. Much of his focus last season was, instead, on playing higher up the pitch.
Brentford are buying a player in Hickey who has a lot of potential, but at this point is very much still a work in progress. His arrival could fill a position, right wing-back, which the Bees need to strengthen in, and his skillset is well suited to the way Frank’s team plays. It’s clear to see the logic behind why this signing is being made.
But for a player so young, it is vital that expectations remain realistic for his debut season in England’s top flight, despite the price tag that is involved in bringing him to west London.