Talking Tactics

Why Van Hecke can fill leadership void in Dunk's absence

By Adrian Clarke 1 Dec 2023
Van Hecke-Brighton

Adrian Clarke says Brighton defender's calm temperament can help end long wait for PL clean sheet at Chelsea

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 14.

Player analysis: Jan Paul van Hecke

Brighton & Hove Albion have not produced a clean sheet in 17 Premier League matches, and they will go in search of that elusive shutout at Chelsea without suspended captain Lewis Dunk.

In his absence, Dutch defender Jan Paul van Hecke will step up and take on extra responsibilities.

Based on recent performances, he is capable of shining at the heart of a depleted Brighton back four, so this should not be a cause for concern.

Outstanding in away matches at Everton, Ajax and Nottingham Forest, the 23-year-old is playing well enough to hold Roberto De Zerbi’s backline together.

Born to play the Brighton way

Van Hecke’s calm nature makes him an ideal fit to play for this Brighton side.

Asked to receive and make passes in tight areas as a matter of course, you need to be cool-headed - and the Netherlands Under-21 international is built that way.

His passing under pressure has been exceptional this season.

Across his six starts and two substitute appearances Van Hecke has produced a pass accuracy rate of 94.48 per cent – the third highest of any central defender.

Up against opponents who often choose to press the Seagulls - as Chelsea will at Stamford Bridge - that is a hugely impressive number.

PL defenders' pass accuracy 2023/24*
Passing accuracy %
Thiago Silva 95.36%
Micky van de Ven 94.59%
Jan Paul van Hecke 94.48%
Manuel Akanji 93.54%
Ruben Dias 93.27%

*Minimum six starts

What makes that stat even more special is that he averages 94.91 successful passes per match, including a division-high 70.19 inside his own half.

PL defenders' passing stats 2023/24*
Succ. passes own half/90 Succ. passes/90
Jan Paul van Hecke 70.19 Lewis Dunk 96.60
Lewis Dunk  67.22 Jan Paul van Hecke 94.21
Axel Disasi  54.07 Ruben Dias 83.21
Adam Webster  53.50 Adam Webster 80
Cristian Romero  51.88 Cristian Romero 78.55

*Minimum six starts

He also sweeps a lot of longer-range passes towards the wings, which are rarely cut out.

While it is a blow to lose Dunk, Brighton know they can rely on Van Hecke’s precise distribution to play out from the back against Chelsea.

Last season Van Hecke’s even-tempered mindset shone brightly in a 1-1 home draw with champions Manchester City.

Pressed by Erling Haaland inside his own box, the young Dutchman produced an audacious drag back turn to evade danger.

This was a sign of how calm he is.

Breakthrough season

Van Hecke has made tremendous progress this season, playing over 1,000 minutes in all competitions already.

That is a big step up from the 574 minutes he played in the whole of 2022/23, on the back of winning Blackburn Rovers’ Player of the Year while on loan in the Championship the season before.

He has earned De Zerbi’s trust through his technical ability and temperament, but also because of his resilience.

A natural defender, Van Hecke has made 12 blocks from shots, and no top-flight defender can come close to his 1.90 blocks per 90 minutes so far in 2023/24.

Most blocks by PL defenders*
2023/24 Total/90
Jan Paul van Hecke 1.90
James Tarkowski 1.54
Harry Maguire 1.43
Willy Boly 1.40

* Minimum six starts

Clean sheet target

Fresh from a second consecutive away clean sheet in the UEFA Europa League, Brighton would love to earn their first Premier League shutout since May at Chelsea.

Van Hecke's superb clearance v Ajax

The Blues have improved as an attacking force in recent weeks, but have been beaten to nil in two of their last four home contests.

Without Dunk by his side, this is an opportunity for Van Hecke to step up and prove that he can be a leader within this Seagulls starting XI.

Difficult to faze, he will be unperturbed by the challenge of keeping Mauricio Pochettino’s side at bay.

Also in this series

Part 1: How Ederson can help Man City overcome Spurs' high press
Part 2: Can Onana and Maguire stand up to Newcastle test?
Part 3: Iraola's vision starting to shine at Bournemouth

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