Kaine Kesler-Hayden has become Plymouth Argyle’s second signing of the transfer window. The 20-year-old wing back has joined on loan from Aston Villa, and bringing him in follows many patterns Argyle have developed in recent years.
He’s the latest player to bring some double-barrelled flair to Argyle’s wide areas, joining an elite club with Ashley Smith-Brown, Aaron Taylor-Sinclair and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis. He’s also another to join on loan from Villa, following in the successful footsteps of Finn Azaz last year. And he’s the most recent addition to have played for England at youth level. Neil Dewsnip, have you any comment?
Kesler-Hayden is a wing back who primarily plays on the right side. That naturally raises two questions. Does he represent an upgrade on Joe Edwards? And can he fill the gap left by Bali Mumba following the expiry of his loan? I’ve tried to delve into those questions, whilst also looking at what may have attracted Argyle to Kesler-Hayden in the first place.
Steady rise through the game
Kesler-Hayden has always been highly rated. He captained the Villa side that won the FA Youth Cup in 2021, marking the Villans’ first success in the competition for two decades. But as has been well documented, he’d actually already lined up for the Villa first team before that victory. With the entire first team squad isolating due to COVID rules at the time, Kesler-Hayden lined up in an FA Cup tie against a full-strength Liverpool. The more I think back to that time, the more bizarre it feels.
But it’s been his experiences in the EFL that have caught many eyes. Since the start of 2021-22, he’s had three loan spells, each seeing him climb another step in the pyramid. He started off at Swindon Town, but it quickly became apparent that he was far too good for League Two. Thus, he was recalled and loaned straight back out to Milton Keynes as they pushed for promotion from League One.
It wouldn’t surprise me if his spell at MK was the catalyst for Argyle’s interest. If you dare, cast your mind back to Argyle’s 5-0 defeat on the final day of the season. Many remember it as a humbling at the hands of Scott Twine FC, but Kesler-Hayden also had a storming game for the visitors. He completed three key passes, created a big chance and won 71% of his duels. We know that infamous experience was the inspiration for Steven Schumacher to replicate MK’s 3-4-2-1 shape, and Kesler-Hayden’s success will have played a part in his thinking.
Alas, neither Argyle nor MK were promoted that year. But it was always likely that Kesler-Hayden would get to the Championship. Step forward Huddersfield Town. After narrowly missing out on promotion to the Premier League, losing to Nottingham Forest in highly controversial circumstances in the Championship play-off final, the Terriers brought in Kesler-Hayden for their 2022-23 campaign.
It must be conceded that his spell at Huddersfield didn’t go wholly to plan. But he did bundle in a late winner away at Preston North End on Boxing Day. Can you imagine the scenes if he does the same for Argyle against Ryan Lowe’s Preston?
A new style of wing back?
Pinning down some stats for Kesler-Hayden has been a little problematic. When we looked at Julio Pleguezuelo, he’d just come off the back of a full season in the Eredivisie. Lovely. I’ll take those numbers for my analysis, thank you very much. But Kesler-Hayden hasn’t completed a full season in any of his three loan spells, for a variety of reasons. Huddersfield, for instance, terminated his deal in January to free up a loan slot for another problem position in the side.
So I’ve conducted something of a fudge. All the numbers you see below are taken from his MK loan spell (the second half of 2021-22) and his time at Huddersfield (the first half of 2022-23). It effectively makes up one full season. Is that the best procedure? I think so. Opinions may vary.
Anyway, using that method, it becomes apparent that Kesler-Hayden is a different style of defender to Edwards and Mumba. Or at least he has been across the last year-and-a-half. We’re used to seeing Edwards and Mumba defending on the front foot and getting stuck in with tackles. Kesler-Hayden, meanwhile, is much more laid back and standoffish in his approach. For interceptions and tackles, he’s been behind both Edwards and Mumba consistently.
|Player||Tackles per 90||Interceptions per 90|
We should be clear at this early stage that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s merely a stylistic choice. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a player who likes to fly into tackles, whilst Virgil van Dijk only does so when absolutely necessary. You wouldn’t conclude that the former is the better player on the back of that.
In playing in such a fashion, Kesler-Hayden makes himself incredibly tough to dribble past. When a player doesn’t heavily commit to a challenge, it will of course mean he’s less likely to win the ball. But it makes him difficult to beat too, as Kesler-Hayden has shown.
|Player||Dribbled Past per 90|
His presence should lead to less space being available for opponents in wide areas. I think back to Argyle’s 2-2 draw with Portsmouth in September. The Greens conceded their first goal to another rumoured target this summer in Josh Koroma. That was after Edwards overcommitted himself on the right. I doubt we’d see too many goals conceded this way with Kesler-Hayden’s style of defending.
I’ve made a great deal about how Kesler-Hayden doesn’t tackle often. But when he does, he’s very good at it. He picks his moment to go in, and whilst he may not win the ball back as quickly as some of his teammates, he can often be trusted to win it eventually. His tackle success rate goes a long way to demonstrating his eye for committing himself at the right time.
|Player||Tackles||Dribbled Past||Tackle Success|
I recognise I’m in danger of going too far the other way. Kesler-Hayden style of tackling doesn’t automatically make him better than anyone else, just as his low raw number of tackles doesn’t make him any worse. He’s his own player, and I’m interested to see how he progresses during his spell at Home Park.
I suspect how he’s instructed to play, and how he adapts to those instructions, will define his success. Thus far in his career, Kesler-Hayden has successfully defended on the back foot. Argyle may opt for a safe approach and encourage him to play to his strengths. But Schumacher doesn’t strike me as a manager who likes to play things safe, and Kesler-Hayden may be encouraged to commit to challenges a little more. We know his tackling technique is sound, but would he be able to do it on a more regular basis? If he can, Argyle may be onto a winner with their newest recruit.
The challenge of Mumba’s numbers
As we’ve mentioned, Kesler-Hayden is primarily a right-sided wing back. However, we know Schumacher is keen to have his wing backs swap sides if he feels it’ll be beneficial. Kesler-Hayden isn’t alien to the left, lining up there a couple of times during his spell at MK. And with Edwards still around, we must consider whether Kesler-Hayden may be able to fill the void left by Bali Mumba. On both flanks.
That’s a significantly high bar. As if anyone will need reminding, Mumba was exceptional. His piledriver against Exeter City and his stoppage time equaliser in Ipswich will be remembered for many years. To my knowledge, Kesler-Hayden hasn’t scored a goal from outside the box in his senior career. We may not see him make similar entries to the goal of the season contest. But that’s fine – they all count one after all.
Whilst watching Kesler-Hayden, I’ve been drawn to a clip from his loan spell at Swindon. I know, I said I was only including his MK and Huddersfield spells in looking at his numbers. But stick with me on this, because you’ll like it. Take a look at this run from wide on the right to win Swindon a penalty away at Scunthorpe in 2021. It reminded me a lot of Mumba’s early days at Argyle, with defenders scared to put a tackle in due to the inevitable consequences.
I have no doubt Kesler-Hayden will at least attempt to match Mumba’s style of play. But trying to match the outputs of such a stunning talent is a thankless task. Take a look at the dribbling stats for the pair as an example. Kesler-Hayden attempted 39 dribbles across the time period we’re analysing. Had he done that at Argyle last season, he’d have attempted the 4th highest number overall, more than Edwards despite having played around 1000 minutes fewer. But neither his outputs nor success rate were a patch on Mumba’s.
|Player||Dribbles Attempted||Dribbles Completed||Success Rate|
That’s not the only discipline where Mumba comes out on top. As well as the ones we’ve already looked at, here are some more key stats for wing backs. Mumba’s numbers invariably compare favourably to Kesler-Hayden’s.
|Bali Mumba||Kaine Kesler-Hayden*|
|Passes Completed per 90||24.85||22.17|
|Crosses Completed per 90||0.29||0.37|
|Long Pass Success||55%||35%|
|Ground Duel Success||56%||54%|
|Aerial Duel Success||50%||39%|
|Fouls Committed per 90||1.07||0.66|
|Fouls Won per 90||1.65||1.24|
Admittedly, that table makes it seem like I’m talking down our new signing. I promise that’s not my intention. If I’m honest, this exercise has proved to me just how outstanding Mumba was for Argyle, rather than adding any additional concerns to Kesler-Hayden’s abilities.
Nonetheless, without Mumba around, Argyle may be forced into changing the shape of their attacks, with a replacement able to pick up the pieces in defence. It remains to be seen whether Kesler-Hayden will be that successful replacement.
Prospects for the Championship
Possibly the most important aspect of Argyle’s transfer window is the step up in divisions. Each signing must be analysed in that context. I mentioned it for Pleguezuelo, and the same rings true for Kesler-Hayden.
Take the previous section as an example, I think we’ve gone over enough evidence to conclude that Kesler-Hayden isn’t currently at the same level as Mumba. But Mumba spent the last season at a side winning 101 points in League One. Kesler-Hayden hasn’t been able to bed in with a full season during any of his loan spells, and spent the first half of last season at a basket case of a Huddersfield side. His loan had already been terminated before Neil Warnock swooped in to turn their fortunes.
Imagine the roles had been reversed. That it was Kesler-Hayden who had a full season at the top of League One, and Mumba having half a year at a Championship car crash. Would the figures paint Kesler-Hayden in a better light? It’s not out of the question.
Remember, Mumba had an indifferent spell in the Championship with Peterborough before shining at Home Park. And in League One, Kesler-Hayden had a higher success rate compared to his spell in the Championship for dribbles, passes (including long passes), crosses and duels. Who knows what a whole season at that level would have shown?
But Argyle won’t be in League One next season. We must consider how successful Kesler-Hayden may be in the second tier. And on that point, I offer a little dash of hope.
I’ve been analysing Kesler-Hayden as if he’s a seasoned veteran. But let’s take a step back for a moment; the man is only 20, and already has experience at Championship level. He’s clearly got a high ceiling, and whilst Argyle will be hoping he hits the ground running straight away, they’ll also be hoping that coaching and match experience will see him improve as the season goes on. Villa wouldn’t have sanctioned the loan if they didn’t believe that would happen.
Kesler-Hayden is an exciting prospect. And for now, he may be nothing more than that. But don’t be surprised if we’re revisiting this discussion next year on the back of an encouraging season at Argyle.