Analysis: Cameron Devlin's 2022/23 and his Socceroos future
It has been nearly two years since Cameron Devlin left the Wellington Phoenix to play abroad in Scotland for Hearts of Midlothian, in a move that earmarked the mass migration of promising Australians to the Scottish Premiership.
In 2022/23, Devlin was crucial for Hearts as they finished fourth in the league behind Aberdeen, Rangers, and Ange Postecoglou’s champions, Celtic.
But going back to his first season in Scotland, Devlin immediately made an impact. In December 2021, in a match between Hearts and Celtic, where The Hoops triumphed 1-0, Postecoglou approached Devlin post-game to congratulate him on an excellent start to life at the Edinburgh-based club.
“So good to see you doing so well, mate. There is another level in you. Keep working hard," Postecoglou was quoted as saying to Devlin via The Sydney Morning Herald.
This vote of confidence by someone so influential within Australian football undoubtedly affected his performance.
Devlin was ever-present as one of two pivots in Hearts’ 4-2-3-1 system deployed most frequently this season. He registered the sixth most appearances in their league campaign with 26 starts, four off the bench, and the seventh most minutes in the squad. His tenacious defensive attitude and ability to get under the skin of his opponents saw Devlin become a fan and manager's favourite.
Devlin made 41 appearances in all competitions this past season. (Twitter: @cammy_devlin)
One of Devlin’s outstanding attributes is his ability to make tackles in midfield and break up opposition attacks. He ranked 14th across the entire league for tackles per game with two and second in the Hearts squad, only behind fellow countryman Nathaniel Atkinson. However, this metric was down from last season, where he led the Scottish Premiership in tackles per game with 3.3.
Another staple of Devlin's game is his ability to accumulate fouls and frustrate opponents, a distinctly Australian characteristic. He was the tenth-most fouled player in the league at 1.6 per game and the second-most fouled player in the Hearts squad behind fellow midfielder Robert Snodgrass. Devlin slightly regressed in this area from 2021/22, when he finished ninth out of all players in the league with 2.1.
However, an area of Devlin’s game where he has vastly improved from last season is the number of fouls he committed per game. He was second in the league last season, committing 2.2 fouls per game. But he improved to 11th this past season with only 1.5 per game. This improvement was also translated well in his disciplinary record, with Devlin accumulating only five yellow cards this season, halving his total of ten last season, one of the league's poorest records.
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Devlin in action for the Socceroos in a friendly against New Zealand. (Code Sports)
Despite being selected in Graham Arnold’s World Cup squad last year, Devlin did not make it onto the pitch in Qatar and was stuck behind Aaron Mooy and Jackson Irvine in Arnold’s pecking order. Riley McGree and Ajdin Hrustic came off the bench for Arnold when necessary, putting him fifth in Australia’s central midfield pecking order in a best-case scenario.
Many still see Hrustic as the future of Australia's midfield because of his dynamism and creativity. But Devlin could be the ball-winning midfielder doing the dirty work and allowing a player like Hrustic to flourish. This duo in a two-man midfield, or alongside a third option in a three-man setup, could work for a half-decade when either Mooy and Irvine retire from international football or fall out of favour for the Socceroos.
Back to Hearts, most of their creativity this past season came from wide areas and former Premier League winger Snodgrass, the team's primary playmaker before a sudden exit in April. Seeing Devlin further develop an attacking or creative role in Scotland is difficult. However, Hearts have flirted with a back three, with Devlin utilised as a box-to-box midfielder rather than sitting deeper in a pivot. Should he be used more in this role next season, Devlin could improve his creative and offensive skillset.
Devlin's current ceiling will likely be hampered by his lack of size as a midfielder, which many top clubs would look past. Although he utilises his physicality well, Devlin would need to become an imperious presence as a ball-winner to be considered by clubs in leagues with similar competitiveness and physicality to Scotland, such as the Premier League. However, Devlin could become a midfield stalwart for an influential team outside of Europe's top five leagues, particularly in a competition where size and physicality aren't necessary for its top players.
Clubs like Rangers or Celtic might start sniffing around for Devlin down the line. There could be other opportunities abroad should he become a much more valuable asset for the Socceroos midfield as Mooy and Irvine enter the latter stages of their respective careers.
Statistics sourced from WhoScored and FBref.
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