Hearts – What’s all the commotion about?
Despite a relatively poor February, Hearts remain 11 points clear in third spot. Despite that however, fans are starting to vent their frustrations. Jamie McIntosh delves deeper into the Jambos’ season so far, to see if the fans have a right to be angry.
Although they will bear little relevance in the current situation, we’ll begin by discussing the pre-season expectations that Hearts fans will have had last summer.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that this Hearts side came into the season as a newly-promoted team, although in the eyes of the supporters, this fact holds little weight considering the stature of the club.
Hearts put in some seriously pathetic displays on the way to lifting the Championship trophy last season, so the recruitment had to be strong in the summer and it definitely was, spearheaded by sporting director Joe Savage.
After beating Celtic on the opening day of the season, Hearts remained unbeaten for 11 matches on their Premiership return, before tasting defeat for the first time at Pittodrie at the end of October.
Recently, the wheels have come off the maroon Lego bus and now perhaps some of those early season draws that should have been wins might come back to bite them if they don’t up their game.
In terms of goals for and against, after 28 games, Hearts have scored 38 and conceded 29. 38 goals in 28 games doesn’t seem like a lot for a team sitting clear in third, and it probably isn’t, but only Celtic, Rangers and 10th placed Ross County have scored more.
That being said, considering where Hearts found themselves this time last season, you really need to ask: after 28 games on your Premiership return, would you take being 11 points clear in third, only behind Celtic and Rangers?
Of course, you would, but I appreciate it’s a bit more complex than that.
So, what’s all the commotion about…?
The system and personnel
Towards the tail-end of Hearts’ Championship winning campaign last year, manager Robbie Neilson decided to experiment with a back three/five.
Has it worked? Probably not, because although Hearts find themselves with a strong grip on third place, there are a lot of concerning factors that have fans and neutrals alike pondering whether Hearts are actually any good.
First, let’s look at Hearts’ skipper and goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who has made 107 saves this season, more than any other goalkeeper in the top-flight. Of course, this is what Gordon is there to do and is exactly why Hearts brought him back to Tynecastle, but surely this is a concern for Neilson. From a defensive point of view, it’s a real issue that his goalkeeper has had to be this busy.
A lack of defensive stability may suggest that Hearts are constantly in attack mode and are much more focussed on attack. However, that is not the case, as another problem Hearts fans have with this system is the fact that it can sometimes seem a bit negative.
In this system, the wingbacks are crucial because the two central midfielders – whether it be Peter Haring, Cameron Devlin or Beni Baningime – are largely defensive minded. As such, when your wingbacks are more comfortable in defence and are less competent when going forward, you have seven outfield players that are not exactly going to cause the opposition too many problems.
Take both Michael Smith and Andy Halliday, for example. Their effort and commitment to the jersey could never be questioned, but they are often lacking in the attacking duties, with their crosses either overhit or unable to beat the first man. It doesn’t make them bad players, far from it. It just means they aren’t suited to this particular system.
Hearts did have a relatively settled central defence until Craig Halkett, John Souttar and Michael Smith all picked up injuries, meaning the defence turned rather makeshift, undoubtedly impacting recent results.
Moving further forward, Hearts have three good central midfielders in Haring, Baningime and Devlin, but only two spots in which to fit them, while the problems in attack appear even bigger.
Hearts’ top goalscorer Liam Boyce has had a dip in form and somehow Barrie McKay has yet to score for the Jambos, despite doing just about everything else.
Both Boyce and Aaron McEneff have both been placed out of position on the right of a front three which simply hasn’t worked, and Josh Ginnelly has ironically had more joy playing through the centre than he has in his more natural position on the wing.
Ben Woodburn and Gary Mackay-Steven are frustrating individuals with the latter recently showing more promise at left wingback.
Ellis Simms arrived in January to bolster the attacking options and the Everton loanee has already scored three goals, however you couldn’t conclusively determine if a partnership with Boyce has materialised, despite the pair showing promising signs against ten-man St. Mirren on Saturday.
In simple terms, there are a number of arguments as to why the current system might not be working, making it more understandable when fans ask the question…
Are Hearts actually that good?
Hearts started the season in fine form, and they were very exciting to watch for a number of reasons, usually coming out the traps fast, especially at Tynecastle.
Even the historically dismal away record seemed to have improved following early season victories over Dundee United and St. Mirren and there were even murmurs of a title challenge or the potential to split the Old Firm, with Celtic then in disarray.
However, those two away wins have only been backed up by three more. A late Jamie Walker winner at Dundee, a smash and grab at Livingston and Saturday’s win over ten-man St. Mirren.
As already mentioned, Hearts are definitely lucky to still have as strong a grip as they do on third spot and one of the reasons for this is that their rivals continue to take points off each other.
Hibernian and Aberdeen have both sacked their respective managers in Jack Ross and Stephen Glass due to poor form, and are now both in a period of transition, developing new styles under Shaun Maloney and Jim Goodwin
Motherwell were looking strong heading into the new year, but following the departure of Tony Watt, the goals have unsurprisingly dried up. Inversely, Dundee United ended 2021 in wretched form, but have strung together some solid results and remain fifth in the league.
There are five points between fourth placed Hibs and 10th placed Ross County and that’s partly where some Hearts fans’ frustrations come from. It seemed like they were in a position where just a couple more wins would have been enough to make third place a certainty.
Saturday’s victory over St. Mirren was crucial – it ended a run of one league win in six games, and with Hibs, Dundee United and Motherwell all failing to pick up three points, it certainly eases the pressure on Hearts… for now.
Having said that, the Hearts fans are extremely demanding and if complacency does set in, you can be sure they’ll let the players know about it.
Now it’s time to move on to everybody’s favourite manager. To say Robbie Neilson has his critics at Hearts would be the understatement of the century, but why?
Neilson made over 250 competitive appearances for Hearts during 13 years at Tynecastle before returning as manager in 2014, tasked again with leading Hearts to Championship glory.
Osman Sow’s dramatic winner at Ibrox saw Neilson’s managerial tenure begin with a win. After which, Hearts fans chanted “Robbie, give us a wave!” as he was in the middle of his post-match interview at pitch side.
That seems like something that just wouldn’t happen now, especially considering as soon as a bad result comes along, regardless of the circumstances, the fans are down on Neilson’s head like a tonne of bricks.
So, why do some Hearts fans find it so hard to take to Neilson? Many blame him for Hibs going on to lift the Scottish Cup in 2016 after coming from two goals behind at Tynecastle to force a replay at Easter Road, that they would go on to win.
Others look at his record in ‘big games’ overall, whereas perhaps the majority feel he should’ve been sacked following defeats to Alloa and Brora Rangers in both the League and Scottish Cup last season. And who could forget the European defeat to Maltese minnows Birkirkara at Tynecastle…
That’s all in the past now though and if Neilson can steer Hearts to a third place finish on their Premiership return (especially considering the financial reward for finishing third this season) and throw in another potential trip to Hampden, that can and should only be classed as a successful season for both Neilson and Hearts.