What has gone wrong at Hearts?
After a sensational start to the season, the wheels have started to fall off at Hearts amidst an injury crisis. John Menzies looks at where things have gone wrong for the Jambos lately.
In October, Hearts fans were dreaming of a memorable season. Craig Levein’s side were six points clear at the summit of the Ladbrokes Premiership, albeit with a game in hand over nearest challengers Celtic, having just defeated Dundee 3-0 at Dens Park, and with a Betfred Cup semi-final against Brendan Rodgers’ men to come that weekend, fans could be forgiven for dreaming of glory.
But fast forward two months, the Tynecastle outfit are out of the Betfred Cup and sit in fifth place and are nine points off the top of the table. In the time since that victory in Dundee, they have won once in nine league games – an unconvincing 1-0 win at home to Motherwell. And out of the other eight games, they’ve lost six of them. Even at Tynecastle, which has been such a fortress since the club moved back there last November, wasn’t looking so formidable, with both Kilmarnock and Rangers leaving Gorgie with three points.
So why has it all gone south for the Jam Tarts? Well, injuries haven’t been kind to the team. Even before this horrendous run, Hearts had lost Christophe Berra, John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu to long-term injuries. But the big loss was that of Steven Naismith. The Scotland international suffered a knee injury during the Betfred Cup semi-final defeat to Celtic, which he only just returned from during Saturday’s defeat at Aberdeen. And it’s no coincidence that there has been a downturn in form since Naismith was out of the team. His leadership, link-up play and sheer determination was a big reason as to why Hearts were flying so high at the beginning of the season. And not to mention his goals. He was top scorer in the league at the time of the injury with six goals. But during the period he was out, Hearts scored four times. In nine games. There’s no question that Naismith, as well as Ikpeazu – scheduled to return next month – have been missed.
Another area Hearts have struggled with is keeping goals out. Before this downturn in form, they had conceded only seven times in ten league goals. But following the 2-0 defeat to Aberdeen on Saturday, 19 goals have been conceded in the last nine games. And of course, this run included conceded five during the horror show away at Livingston. The team has been unable to run a consistent defensive line-up since the injury to John Souttar, and this has shown.
The likes of Jimmy Dunne, Clevid Dikamona, Michael Smith, Aaron Hughes, Peter Haring and the returning Berra have all been utilised at centre half during this run, meaning no sort of comfortability has been able to build amongst the back line. And as a result, goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal’s performances have dropped because of the lack of consistency amongst the defence, which saw him dropped for the first time this season at Aberdeen, in favour of Republic of Ireland international Colin Doyle.
The final game of the year are very crucial for Levein and his side. With Naismith back, along with Berra, the side need to end 2018 on a high to give themselves some momentum going into the second half of the season. The morale amongst the fans is very low at the moment, but positive results in these games – especially in the Edinburgh Derby this coming Saturday – would go a long way to raising the mood at Tynecastle.