Milton Keynes Dons may only sit five points above the relegation zone in League One, but their summer signing Rhys Healey has lit up the division with his goalscoring exploits. The 25-year-old joined the Dons on an undisclosed fee from Cardiff City, after scoring eight times in 18 games last season in a loan spell at Stadium MK.
The Mancunian striker, who made his English football debut in a 2014 EPL clash between Cardiff and Chelsea, has taken the step up in his stride. He’s notched an impressive 11 goals in 19 games. Had Healey not been injured for three months, this could have been more.
Role in the team
Russell Martin’s tactics are pretty unique, and he’s mainly played a 4-4-2 narrow diamond since taking the reigns in November last year. But instead of relying on the full-backs for width, or asking the central midfielders to constantly drift out wide, Martin encourages his strikers to run the channels. Healey spends most of his time operating out on the left-hand channel or in the half-space between the opponent’s right-sided centre back and right back. This is illustrated in the heat map below.
He’s also played as the left-sided wide forward in a 4-3-3 four times this season. In these areas, he’s able to showcase his dribbling ability by isolating and running at the full-back.
Off the ball movement
The analysis will now focus on his movement off the ball. When the Dons are in possession, Healey often drops deep and hugs the touchline, like in the example below from their game against Bolton Wanderers.
By doing this, he’s created a passing triangle with left-back Dean Lewington and left-sided central midfielder Alex Gilbey. This creates a numerical advantage down the left flank, which is important for a Dons side who like to retain possession and play a lot of short, simple passes to move the ball forward. In this situation, they can take the opponent out of the game in this three versus one scenario, allowing Healey to run up against the full-back. He needs to take up these positions as the Buckinghamshire outfit don’t play with overlapping full-backs or natural wingers.
The next example shows the striker’s clever movement in offensive transitions. Due to his usual starting position in the left channel, he’ll generally start wide but come into the area between the right-sided centre back and right back when running in behind.
In the image above, he’s running in between Aristote Nsiala and Jason Lowe, who is the right-back out of shot. As Gilbey is on the ball, Nsiala’s attention is focused on him. Healey cleverly gets onto Nsiala’s blindside so he can’t track his run if the ball is played through.
Healey’s positional discipline is demonstrated in the next image. A lot of strikers would try and make a run between the centre back and full back, but he recognises that Ben Reeves is about to receive possession in a situation where he can carry the ball. Because of this, he retains his width. This creates space for Reeves to run into as he’s pinned back Jason Lowe, who can’t apply pressure to the ball.
His tendency to get on the blindside of defenders is clear in the image below, from the same passage of play.
Healey holds his position as Reeves advances with possession. By keeping positional discipline, he’s now on Lowe’s blindside as his attentions are focused on the ball carrier. Therefore, the Bolton man can’t track his run in behind.
Dribbling and Finishing
Healey’s finishing stats are superb. He boasts a conversion rate of 21.2%, and he’s managed to keep exactly half of his shots on target. The former Cardiff man has managed to score 11 times from an expected goals total 6.86. Of course, this is a small sample size of just 1,516 minutes: teams and players who outperform their expected goals total sometimes struggle to sustain their high levels of performance. Therefore the challenge is for Healey to maintain these exceptional finishing stats over a longer period.
His 11 goals may not put him towards the top of the golden boot race, but he did miss three months of action from September with a thigh injury. However, a ratio of 0.65 goals per 90 minutes is enough to put him third in the league (out of players who’ve played a minimum of 1,000 minutes.)
The former Colchester United loanee is an ice-cool finisher who is capable of scoring with both feet. He’s scored four times with his left foot and six times with his right, and his comfort with either foot is a dangerous weapon as defenders can’t show him onto a weaker side. The images below are an example of him using his two footedness and dribbling ability to create space in a crowded penalty area before scoring against Rotherham United.
In the image below, Healey received a long ball over the top, after running in behind the hosts’ right-back. He then cut in onto his right foot, before shifting the ball back onto his left foot to create space for a shot.
Healey averages 7.12 dribbles per 90 minutes, which is the second-highest rate out of all League One strikers. The 25-year-old scored a similar type of goal against Bristol Rovers. He received the ball on the half-turn with the ball on his right foot.
The Dons’ striker has demonstrated his ability to run in behind high lines and score from distance. This leaves opposition managers with a conundrum: should they play with a high line and leave space in behind, or should they drop off and risk giving him space to try a long-range effort?
Link up play
The way MK Dons play relies on their strikers being part of possession-based attacking moves. Despite sitting in 18th place, Russell Martin’s men enjoy the joint fourth-highest amount of average possession in the division. They also complete an average of 9.92 passes per defensive action against, which is the fifth-highest in the league.
Healey is not afraid to drop deep and play simple passes to his teammates to help his team keep possession. He’ll often do this from the left touchline, for the reasons we touched on earlier in the scout report.
In the image above, the former Torquay United loanee receives the ball with his back to goal and plays a simple pass back to a teammate. His knack of playing with his back to goal is important, as he can hold possession up before finding teammates who are running into advanced positions. Healey’s pass completion rate of 77.12% is high for a striker, but it’s worth noting that a lot of these passes are simple and short given that MK Dons like to play possession-based football.
Can Healey pull off more challenging passes? Sometimes, but not always. In the images below, he tries finding a teammate with a more difficult forward pass, but he overhits it and the ball runs out.
Below is a more successful example of his ability to play a through ball for his teammate to run onto. He lifted a succulent pass over the top of Accrington’s defence, which Kieran Agard ran onto and scored. Healey’s forward pass accuracy is 56.92%, which is around the league median for strikers. If he is to play at a higher level, perhaps this is something that he could look to develop.
The frontman has won 44.64% of his offensive duels, which is the second-best success rate out of strikers in the league. Despite standing at a relatively small 5ft 10ins, Healey has won 51.1% of his aerial duels. Only Michael Smith has won more out of all strikers in the third tier. It’s worth noting that Healey often faces full-backs in aerial battles instead of opposing centre backs, but those stats are still very impressive.
Furthermore, he completes 7.12 successful attacking actions per 90 minutes. Only Peterborough’s Siriki Dembele scores higher in this metric. All these numbers demonstrate just how involved and well-rounded Healey is as a footballer. He’s a goalscorer that does much more than simply score goals.
Tracking back and pressing
Another impressive part of Healey’s game is his work rate and defensive ability. Within their narrow diamond tactics, he’s tasked with following attacking runs from the opposing right-back to help out Dean Lewington at left-back. This is illustrated in the image below.
The forward’s constant willingness to track back means that it’s harder for teams to overload Lewington’s flank and create two versus one situations. By using Healey to trackback instead of asking a central midfielder to shuttle across, MK Dons can retain numerical superiority in midfield.
Impressively, Healey wins 64% of his defensive duels. He’s willing to get back as far as his own penalty area to dispossess opponents if he can, as he does in the image below.
The ex-Cardiff man is clever with the positions he takes up when pressing. He looks to block the passing lanes to the full-back instead of getting tight to central defenders. In the example below, the centre back is unable to play the ball into the left-back, so he has to turn back towards his own goal. He then panics and puts the ball out of play.
Rhys Healey has enjoyed a sensational first season as a permanent MK Dons player, and his goals have been key in their bid for survival in their first season back in the third tier. Not only is he a goalscorer, but the Manchester-born hitman has proven that’s he’s a fine all-round player who is central to everything that the Dons do.
At 25, Healey isn’t quite at the peak of his powers and he still has the potential to improve his game. There were reports that Championship clubs were interested in him a few months ago, and it’s easy to see how that interest could re-emerge in the summer.