Ewan Henderson has enjoyed a rapid rise to first-team prominence at Celtic.
Of late, the reigning Scottish champions have had to make do without their three main creative outlets in Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie and Tom Rogic, though their 18-year-old academy graduate is helping them through what for most teams would constitute a severe injury crisis.
The youngster’s first start came in Brendan Rodgers’ last game in charge, a 4-1 win over Motherwell in which he set up the second goal. An intelligent run towards space on the right was followed by an accurate curled cross for Odsonne Edouard to finish.
That wasn’t the first goal Henderson had set up, however. Having come on as a substitute at home to St Mirren in January, he proceeded to play a wonderful through ball for Timothy Weah to run onto and score.
Two assists in four Scottish Premiership outings this term is a good return, but these moments should be taken for what they are – not signs of an unrealistically good production rate to come, but snapshots of a technically excellent young midfielder making his mark at senior level.
Since Rodgers left and Neil Lennon took charge, Henderson has continued to play. That perhaps underlines just how much confidence in his abilities exists within the club. But, of course, it’s important to note the situation that enabled his promotion.
McGregor, Christie and Rogic are among the most consistent creators not just at Celtic, but in the entire league. Rarely do all three start together – such a setup would likely leave some kind of imbalance in the team – but each possesses a genuine influence on the way their side attacks and, albeit to a lesser extent, defends.
Between them they have set up 20 goals and scored 14, and their individual roles in build-up from the back, penetrating in the final third and pressing once the ball is lost are key to the Celtic’s style. Without them, Lennon seems to prefer a two-one setup in midfield with captain Scott Brown joining Nir Bitton behind Henderson.
The door has been opened for the 18-year-old but he still has to take his chance. So far he is doing just that, performing at a level that suggests big things are to come.
Not so long ago, similar expectations were placed on his older brother’s shoulders. Liam Henderson broke into the first team at Celtic back in 2013/14, though he wasn’t quite able to stay there. After several successful loan spells in the Scottish Championship with Hibernian and in Norway with Rosenborg, he departed permanently for Italy, where he has established himself in Serie B with Verona.
But while he couldn’t nail down a regular berth at Parkhead, he believes his younger brother is better positioned to do so. After Ewan’s assist against St Mirren, Liam praised him on Twitter using a rather telling hashtag: #TheBetterHendo.
In his four league games this term, the younger Henderson – who made his debut last season against Kilmarnock – has averaged 3.50 dribbles and attempted just under 50 passes at an 80 per cent success rate. He also has averaged 7.90 recoveries in the opposition half, most of which have come about through his willingness to engage in counter-pressing.
Beyond the data, the first thing that stands out when observing him play is his movement out of possession. Without being particularly mobile, he is able to get on the ball by working good positions for himself and opening passing lanes for teammates to exploit. This quality is backed up by his comfort on the ball, even when receiving with his back to goal or under direct pressure from an opponent.
Along with this, his guile in the final third and passing execution are important traits to have for a playmaking prospect. These skills should continue to be developed while he trains and plays with the first team, something he discussed in a recent interview with the Celtic View.
“It's been a really good few weeks as it's been good to get a chance to play with the first team,” he said. “It's great to train with the boys, because it allows you to learn how they play, how they move and how they operate both on and off the pitch.
“Doing that every day helps me develop and they've helped me a lot, and have helped me to get where I am today.”
The 18-year-old has been sacrificed in games Celtic are chasing, though. This happened away to Hearts and at home to Aberdeen last weekend. However, it had more to do with Lennon’s tactical proclivities, which seem to involve adding another attacker for a midfielder when behind or drawing, than any individual shortcoming. What’s more noteworthy is the fact a new boss is placing trust in him to start in the first place.
Henderson’s rise has come amid chaos at Celtic: changing managers, injuries to key players and an on/off title race. However, considering his obvious talent and potential, it appears likely that he will remain involved at first-team level once things settle down.