John Heitinga: the right player at the wrong time

Posted by Luke O'Farrell

AllsportMost expect Everton centre back John Heitinga to depart the club during the January transfer window.

There is little doubt that Everton do not possess the obvious strength in depth like the teams around them. Nevertheless, central defence is certainly one of the stronger areas within the squad. This aspect of the defensive setup is an ageing one, but it remains high on quality.

Few sides can point to a fourth choice centre back who has featured in a World Cup final, played in the Champions League and racked up 87 caps for the Netherlands. Everton can, though, and the player in question is former Ajax and Atletico Madrid defender John Heitinga.

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The centre back turns 30 on Friday, but he is sure to have enjoyed happier birthdays. Without a league appearance this season, albeit sidelined in recent weeks by injury, the defender is not in the Netherlands squad for the upcoming friendly matches against Japan and Colombia.

The prospect of much-needed first team football, which is a must in a World Cup year, appears slim at Goodison. Entering the final year of a lucrative contract, the odds on a January departure shorten by the week; contract renewal looks increasingly unlikely, as the current predicament suits neither party.

Restricted to two League Cup outings in a holding midfield role, Heitinga seems to have fallen behind England U-21 defender John Stones in the defensive pecking order. While there is obvious promise and potential with Stones, this demotion underlines how far the Heitinga stock has fallen on Merseyside.

Still, there was a time not so long ago when this present situation seemed inconceivable. After undergoing the initial eased-into-the-team-via-an-unfamiliar-position ritual regularly adopted by David Moyes -- Phil Jagielka began life at Everton in central midfield; Heitinga started at right back -- the centre back began to show his quality.

But the expected progress constantly stalled, as Moyes favoured the Jagielka-Sylvain Distin partnership, with Heitinga mostly left plugging midfield gaps. Eventually, having more than served his apprenticeship, Heitinga found increased involvement in his preferred defensive role and the performances followed.

Heitinga grasped his chance with both hands when the favoured pairing of Jagielka-Distin suffered a jittery start to 2011-12. The Dutch defender soon became a regular feature in the heart of the defence and crowned his productive campaign with the club's player of the year award.

Throughout that season, Heitinga exuded confidence and composure. Assured in possession, Heitinga provided the team with a valuable, previously lacking option: a ball-playing central defender. Comfortable on either side of the defence, the central defender displayed an exemplary reading of the game at his best.

Unexpectedly, though, the wheels came off in disastrous fashion the following year. Devoid of form and confidence, Heitinga endured a torrid time last season. The aftereffects lingered -- not even a managerial change could break up the number one pairing. As such, Heitinga has not featured in a league game at centre back since April.

Bench-warming at present, largely due to the form of a defensive unit with six clean sheets in eleven matches, the scenario does not look set to improve for a player desperately seeking match-action.

The terrible irony of all this is that, having battled to establish a place under the more defensive Moyes, Heitinga is perfect for the style employed by Roberto Martinez. Watching Jagielka and Distin struggle with this possession-based approach is bound to hurt Heitinga as he watches on from the sidelines.

Considering the needs of the player, and a club who can ill-afford to lose him for nothing, the smart money is on a January exit. Nonetheless, regardless of when/if the move materialises, this may feel like a missed opportunity on both sides. Hampered by his own loss of form last season, and the consistent form of others, yet ideally suited to the methods of Martinez, there is a sense that Heitinga is the right player at the wrong time.


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