Whilst questions remain over Levein’s tenure and tactics, very little solutions have been offered. Hearts have huffed and puffed over finding a strong eleven that they can find consistency with. There is a spine to the team but many players who tend to drift in and out. After another intensive summer of recruitment, the squad is in a strong position to challenge for European places – if the coaching team allow them to.
So far, Hearts have toyed between a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, and despite overcoming most of their injury issues, some injuries have prevented finding a solid team. Those injuries are namely to Peter Haring and Steven Naismith, and with the latter nearing full fitness there is now the opportunity to find a structure. Hearts have brought in Joel Peirera, Craig Halkett, Loic Damour, Jamie Walker, Glenn Whelan, Connor Washington and Steven Naismith, with Aidy White arriving later last season, to address some of the issues in the team. These signings all have an impressive background in football and should contribute in the right team.
As explained in the last article, the shape currently isn’t working and Hearts need to find a way to play to their strengths. At times last season, Levein experimented with a back three. The results were mixed with an often criticism returning to Christophe Berra’s lack of ability to distribute from the back. However with the addition of Craig Halkett as well as the protection from Loic Damour and Glenn Whelan means a back three could be back on the cards.
Setting up in 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1) formation could allow Hearts to get their most creative players in to the game whilst also providing adequate protection to the defence. The back three pick itself, but picking Berra in the centre would allow him to focus on his defensive responsibilities rather than providing the passes in to midfield. As previously discussed, both Halkett and Souttar have more than enough ability to play from the back, with the former having a range of passing that most midfielders would be envious of. All three players would also be aided by the arrival of a new goalkeeper in Peirera, who is bound to give them more confidence than the erratic Zdenek Zlamal.
A previous issue of a back three was where Michael Smith fitted in. Smith is Hearts’ most consistent performer, rarely under a 7/10 every week. The Northern Irish international is a dependable right back, but often struggled to provide the necessary support in attacking areas. Playing behind a front three could address that issue, however, in recent months Smith has shown a willingness to get forward as part of the attack and his crossing has improved remarkably. On the other side, Hearts have a few options with Aidy White, Aaron Hickey, Jake Mulraney and Ben Garrucio (when fit). All of these players offer something different and although the most obvious choice would be Aidy White if he can overcome his fitness issues, it is Jake Mulraney that is most interesting.
Jake Mulraney is far and away Hearts’ quickest player, if not the fastest in the country. Despite an underwhelming start to life at Hearts, he has shown he can make an impact when required. Although I don’t believe he would be the best choice in this formation, he does offer natural width which Hearts sorely lack. Mulraney would then be a really effective option from the bench, similarly to Callumn Morrison on the right side once he regains fitness.
The biggest additions to this potential team would be the captures of defensive midfielders Damour and Whelan. Both have experience of playing in the fast-paced English Champioship, with Whelan amassing over 500 appearances across England’s top two divisions. From what we’ve seen so far, despite being a defensive midfielder by trade, Damour is able to get his foot on the ball and progress forward to build attacks. Whelan can then provide support to the back three, allowing the rest of the team to push on. Once Peter Haring regains fitness then it would be very easy for the Austrian to replace one of the two, or replace a centre-half, allowing the shape to easily revert back to a 4-3-3 when need be.
This then brings us on to the forward line, which Hearts are failing with currently. If Naismith and Walker were to support Conor Washington, the team are likely to build more fluid attacks with all three contributing. It is clear that NI striker Washington is desperate for a goal, but he has shown so far he has the ability to work the channels and drag defenders out of position. This would then create the space for Hearts’ two most lethal attackers, who can occupy the space in behind the lone striker. This shape would also allow both players to focus on central areas, with the wing backs providing the width slightly behind them. With 14 goals for Naismith last season, and 15 for Walker in his previous campaign in Gorgie, it would be hard to argue against those two players being involved in most of Hearts’ goals this year. The absence of Uche Ikpeazu also means there is less temptation to play long, however he is a good option to have. His introduction from the bench alongside other attackers such as Keena, Clare, Maclean and the potential arrival of Man City’s Japanese attacker Ryotaro Meshino.
Although this selection is entirely hypothetical, it is easy to see how this suits many of Hearts’ most important players. Getting the most out of our most valuable players is what will bring results, and with the squad available, there is no reason why it shouldn’t challenge on all three fronts.
Read part one around Hearts tactical analysis here.