I’ve slept on the performance of Hearts against Fiorentina on Thursday night and come up with my thoughts on the season so far. It is a mixture of good and bad, and generally could be used as a case for the defence and the prosecution, as I generally don’t know what would be best. So, I apologise in advance for my incoherent ramblings.
I’ll start by saying that I am not strongly in either camp regarding the tenure of Robbie Neilson (RN), though after the defeat to Brora Rangers and the subsequent performance / result against Queen of the South, I felt that it would be best for him to go at the end of that season. This was because he would have achieved his remit of promotion back to the Scottish Premier League (SPL), but appeared not to have got a reaction from the players following the defeat against Brora, and couldn’t get the team playing positive attacking football which he said was his desire.
Move forward to this season. Qualification for group stage football in Europe guaranteed, after finishing third in the first season back in the SFL, this was always going to be a hectic intensive start to the season. Recruitment on the face of it looked positive, though the players should be judged at the end of the season, as they appear to be playing in a low confidence team, which can skew your thoughts on them.
When you look at the stats from this season which shows that Hearts have only won 5 in 14 games this season, it does look like poor form, and it has been compared to the tenure of Shaun Maloney across the city at Hibs last season, however the quality of opposition that was faced is considerably different. It has been mentioned that it is 5 in 19, if you take on the end of last season, but apart from the Cup Final (which was an extra time loss), these were essentially dead rubbers as Hearts had nothing to play for as Hearts had wrapped up third place before the split (and lets not talk about the fact that you play the other best five teams so results will always be worse) But they don’t tell the whole story. Apart from the defeat at home to Kilmarnock on the League Cup, and possibly the defeat at Almondvale (which is never an easy game, due to the nature of the pitch), though the performance was an issue, they have performed reasonably well on the domestic scene. And herein lies the issue when you look at stats, as alluded to earlier, the strength of the opposition. I’ll address the performances later. Only five wins is a poor return, however if you look at the eight losses, I will say that only Kilmarnock and Livingston were disappointing. Two of the other six were against Celtic (A) and Rangers (H), which most seasons are the norm. The other four were in Europe, and when you look at the calibre and quality of the teams, they are not unexpected. It should be noted that the guarantee of eight matches in Europe, would always influence W/D/L, as the calibre of the teams can be at a completely different level. The teams Hearts have been defeated by, were Zurich (current Swiss champions), Istanbul Basaksehir (2021 league champions, and international players across the squad including a former Aston Villa striker) who beat Manchester United in the Champions League a few years back, and Fiorentina of Serie A, who have paid over 8M Euro for at least eight players, including a player that Real Madrid payed Eintracht Frankfurt £56M for in 2019. The strength and depth of these squads, especially the latter two is clear and I feel they would probably defeat Rangers and Celtic comfortably if they were to play them. I know that it is circumspect, but if you remove the European ties, Hearts have won four of nine games, and are sitting two points off third place. That makes the stats a little bit more stable.
Ah but the performance! And this I completely agree with. Looking at Europe, apart from the first half against Zurich at Tynecastle, I feel that RN has been far to conservative and defensive, and focussed on what the opposition can do. This has been by main gripe through both of RN’s tenure. His outlook in these games, mirror his outlook to matches against Celtic and Rangers, and unfortunately many away games, and some home matches (and that really frustrates me). Looking at the last three home matches, I think Hearts have set up too passively, looking to defend and hit on counter, and giving the opposition too much room. These three sides are better than Hearts, and not putting them under any true pressure, allows their play makers the time to make the passes and incision which they are more than capable to do. Against Fiorentina, who have been very profligate in front of goals, they did not show any attacking threat. If they had, and managed an early goal, they may have felt under more pressure. When Hearts did (very occasionally), you could see the worry in their defensive set up. A lot has been made about the atmosphere, which is often thought to be intimidating. It ofte has been until KO then the team comes out and almost appear to not want to be there. Previously, I felt Hearts were unfairly labelled, ’big and physical’, but some of that would help with the atmosphere. Stephen Craigan made the point the fans just wanted something to grab onto, and when they did the atmosphere increased. This was shown when Alex Cochrane closed down the Fiorentina keeper, and put him under pressure, the decibel level rose. However, it was so sporadic, and was after the game was already moving from Hearts, so a little doesn’t generate a consistent positive vibe. Hearts very rarely start the games fast, taking the game to the opposition! Considering how they started the second half, I think this was through design, which automatically passes the initiative to the opposition, and the quality opposition has taken advantage. They have shown too much respect. As for the team selection, I was very disappointed with the set up. I still can’t fathom why Cammy Devlin did not start! He is missing the next two SPL fixtures due to his sending off against Rangers. He will only be playing two matches in two weeks. He has been in my opinion the most comfortable / best player on the ball in Europe this season, so to be dropped for Andy Halliday, I don’t understand. I would also have played two upfront, as I don’t think Shankland is effective as a lone striker. Against Rangers there looked like a connection was developing between him and Humphrys, so not to give them a run, was baffling to me. It looked like a 3-4-3 which most of time ended as 5-4-1, and the two central midfielders being of a defensive mindset, allowing Fiorentina to focus on recycling the ball and looking at attacking. This allowed them to build up a head of steam. What also didn’t help was the lack of tracking of the runners by the Hearts defence. This allowed easy transitions, and playing three at the back, allowing the flanks to be exposed, and easy chances to be created. And these easy chances exposed Hearts lack of organisation at the back and allowed plenty of chances. This is a recurring theme for all of Hearts matches. It is an easy attack for the opposition, playing balls to the corners and expose the defensive frailties, and Hearts have been exposed in most games this season. I seriously hope that Hearts go back to a 4-4-2. This negates a lot of the issues with the issues with crosses, but also Hearts have by far a better success rate when playing that system. Another thing that I was concerned about was the positioning of Barrie McKay in the second half. On a few occasions as the team were building on the right (Camera side), he was hugging the left touchline, so much that he wasn’t engaging the full back, thus almost being a player down, as he wasn’t involved and keeping the defender interested. If he had, the sp[ace may have been opened up for the other players.
What may be mitigating factor to playing three at the back, is what I feel is a key to Hearts disappointing performances (especially in Europe). The fact that four certain starters are out injured. Especially missing the two first choice centre halves. While it may have been possible to cope with missing one of them for a few games, missing both has meant a complete makeshift defence, including Neilson, who I feel would have been good alongside Halket or Rowe (who I thought has been outstanding before the freak injury), but does not have the experience alongside a non centre half I the middle of defence. The other alternative would have been Toby Sibbick, but he is seriously short of confidence, and unfortunately has become the boo boy of some of the fans. Also missing our best midfielder and last season’s top scorer, has compounded this. Liam Boyce does a power of work up front, and links the play well, which we are drastically missing, alongside Beni Banningime, who is very good at breaking down defence and turning it into attack. The two main pivots of the team are missing long term. Any club outside the top two, would struggle majorly without their four key stone players. Add onto this the addition of European midweek matches, and the squad looks threadbare. This may be the reason for the lack of an implemented game plan, as the key players are missing. It may be that the extended squad is not of the quality that was wanted, but it must be remembered this is where development of squad comes in. Hearts have for too often had too high a turnover of players, it has been less in the last year, but may not have managed to get their key targets in key areas. So, I was surprised to see that Aaron McNeff depart for Australia, as he has the potential as an attacking midfielder, which is what we seriously lack, and has not been replaced. I always felt he was not given a series of games to show what he could do, and he has the experience of playing group stage European football. This ties in with using Humphrys. I want to see him and Shankland up front together and given a run of games! They showed their potential against Rangers. What must be considered is that at worst Hearts will be 7th (on goal difference) and 4 points off third after this weekend. I believe that if Hearts are within six points of third at the break for the World Cup, I feel they will have a genuine chance of finishing third and potentially guaranteeing group stage football next season. This has been a steep learning curve for both the club and RN. No other team outside of the Glasgow teams have had to deal with European group football in the recent history. Also, the level of the competition is higher than the best they experience in Scotland.
So am I disappointed this season? Yes, especially the performances in many games, where I feel RN defaults to try and not lose. I’d rather they went for it, which the line-up against Rangers suggested. I go back to the days of Jim Jeffries who did not have the best results against the then Old Firm, but felt we tried to give them a real test. I don’t think Rangers are the same level as those days. Celtic however, I feel if we go toe to toe, we’ll be ripped apart. I would just like us to go 4-4-2, both home and away, and be more aggressive from the start, implementing our strengths rather than concerned by the oppositions. This is a key concern that I have. Go for it and lose and the fans will accept that (Zurich 1st half), much like Motherwell when we defeated them at Fir Park, they were very unlucky, but their fans appreciated it. Most Hearts fans are the same. We have the striker that will finish chances, and we have the potential to supply him. It just seems like a perfect storm of our main creator, and defender being off form (but then are selected for Scotland (go figure)), along with missing four key starters! When we get our central defenders back, I feel we will move to a position of strength, and then if RN can’t get a tune out of the team, then I would be extremely concerned and think his tenure may be shortened from the three year deal he recently signed.