The first home game of the season. This fixture usually brings blind optimism of the season ahead. Good weather, large crowds and an opportunity for a fresh start. This however, wasn’t the case at Tynecastle this past weekend. A tepid 0-0 draw with Ross County has heaped pressure on Craig Levein as Hearts manager. By stark contrast, the same fixture last season brought a fantastic 1-0 win vs Celtic, the second of eight straight wins. Levein’s tactics were paying dividends then, it’s not clear what they are now.
A priority for Hearts has to be finding a line-up, shape and style that they can stick to. Something that the players can buy in to and where the team is playing to the strengths of its personnel. This has been a major issue for Levein, who failed to name an unchanged side in any of last season’s league fixtures. Here, we look at what sort of things are going wrong in Hearts’ tactics at the moment and why that is.
First of all, it’s clear and obvious that the style of football on show is poor to watch. The team are failing to play with pace and are often going long, which has been often been a symptom of Levein’s style of play throughout his managerial career. However, what should be noted is that the ‘long-ball’ jibe is often overstated. Stats show that last season Hearts played the third fewest long balls, and fourth lowest percentage wise (15.5%).
Now, it would be unfair to suggest that this dispels the notion of Hearts being a long ball team but it does paint a slightly better picture. Hearts’ lack of creativity in many matches has meant that the long ball in to the channels or to the striker has been the most viable option. Due to the fact Hearts have been very poor in executing this, it’s likely that this has heightened frustrations around the game plan. On top of this, Hearts should be expected to play a high intensity game at home, particularly given the dimensions and atmosphere at Tynecastle. However, due to the lack of creative players, long balls have often resulted in a loss of possession on one of the leagues smallest parks, meaning opposition teams are able to counter very easily.
This also brings us on the issue with the forward line. Uche Ikpeazu is hard to miss on a football park. The big Englishman is undoubtedly one of the leagues strongest players and could very easily be labelled as a target-man. Except he’s not. Ikpeazu has admitted that he needs to improve in the air, and you can see why. Long balls to the striker are not playing to his or the teams strengths. Ikpeazu is most effective with the ball at his feet, using his body to roll defenders and start attacks. However, this route is often limited due to the striker being penalised for his size. There has been countless games over the past six months were defenders are able to grapple and foul Ikpeazu without punishment. On the other hand, the striker does not help himself when he often looks for fouls in wide areas but a mixture of poor decisions from the striker and poor officiating has meant Ikpeazu has not been as effective as of late.
Despite this weakness in Hearts game being very obvious, it keeps happening. This can often be attributed to Christophe Berra. It would be harsh to lay all the blame on Berra as we don’t know for sure what his manager is telling him to do, but the Scotland international has never been gifted at bringing the ball out from the back and it shows. Berra is fantastic at attacking the ball and his positional awareness has often got Hearts out of a lot of trouble. However since his injury this time last year, he has seemed to lose any sharpness and mobility he had. This means that when receiving the ball from the keeper, Berra often needs two or three extra touches and consequently loses the opportunity to build through the full-backs, or alternatively offers a pass slightly behind his team-mates.
All of this highlights the importance of John Souttar to the team. Souttar is one of the best passers of the ball in the entire division, which is impressive for a centre-back. His ability to break the lines and feed in balls to the final third means that Hearts are often able to start attacks from the back. Now this isn’t necessarily long-ball, but because it’s Levein and because he has that history, many seem to see it that way. Craig Halkett has also shown he is proficient in stepping out from the back, and isn’t afraid to contribute to attacks when the opportunity is there to do so.
The major frustration for fans at the moment is the lack of transparency. What is the game-plan? Is there a plan B? Why are we so reliant on Steven Naismith?
Levein stated last season that his pre-season regime worked on getting the ball forward as quickly as possible and winning the second balls from the strikers to create chances. There is an argument that worked last season but we can’t see it so far this year. Naismith is worth his weight in gold to Hearts and is often an on-field coach, however he shouldn’t have to shoulder all the responsibility of winning every second ball in the final third. Jamie Walker also has the ability to do so, but there’s a chance that the two players take up similar spaces in the Hearts team, which highlights the lack of width.
Although the question remains on whether Levein should continue in his role, there is also the question on whether he can adapt and find a team that works. There is no problem going direct in some games, namely fixtures at Livingston or Kilmarnock it could be useful. However it isn’t the answer at home, and Levein needs to rectify that quickly.
Read part two and a potential solution, here.